Watching The Souvenir is like watching a friend drown, and being unable to help.
Honor Swinton Byrne stars as Julie, an English film student in the 1980s who becomes involved with a slightly older, mysterious man named Anthony (Tom Burke). We see red flags right away—during one of their early dates, in a posh tea room where white lamps hover above like stuffed, predatory birds, he interrogates her as a form of wooing—and sure enough, he soon becomes a destabilizing presence in her life, constantly questioning her choices or letting pauses hang in the air as nonverbal notes of disapproval. She’s smitten nonetheless (a sweet scene in which they negotiate space in bed helps us understand why), and remains so even after she discovers an alarming secret.
Once we learn that secret, we can’t help but scream “Get out!” But writer-director Joanna Hogg, who partly drew from her own past for The Souvenir, isn’t interested in passing judgment on these characters’ choices. Instead, the movie means to live inside of Julie’s experience, capturing the inner rhythms of this intensely complicated experience. Another shot of Julie and Anthony in bed focuses on their intertwined hands, the soft focus going in and out to capture the fluctuating status of Julie’s understanding of their relationship.
The camera can’t do all the work, of course. The Souvenir asks a lot of its lead actor, and Swinton Byrne delivers—in her first significant screen performance, no less. The daughter of Tilda Swinton (who appears in a few scenes as Julie’s mother), Swinton Bryne manages to portray Julie’s impressionable nature as both a weakness and a strength. She’s quiet—notably not a participant when lively discussions erupt at the dinner table or among her fellow film-school students—but not without an interpretation of the world (we see the joy in Julie’s face when she’s quietly going about her creative work). In fact, it’s her openness to feeling that makes Julie an artist. Anthony exploits this quality, but that doesn’t mean it’s a fault.
Burke pulls off something even more impressive as Anthony: even though alarm bells go off as soon as we meet him, he’s never anything less than fascinating. Some of that is due to the passive-aggressive subtleties layered into the performance and some of it is due to the vulnerability Burke also manages to convey. Anthony is insufferably mesmerizing. As such, it’s hard to condemn him, just as it’s hard to condemn Julie for remaining in his grip.
The title of the film is taken from a Jean-Honoré Fragonard painting of a young woman carving her lover’s initials on a tree in a gloomy forest—the tree itself a dark, curving mass of leaves that looks more like a burly shock of hair. Julia and Anthony see the painting in a gallery early on, and there are moments in the film—especially during a romantic trip to Venice, which is lit in the same dark tones—when Julia begins to physically resemble the woman in the canvas. (The cinematography is by David Raedeker.) Indeed, by the end of The Souvenir, Julie finds herself in a similar place to the one we see in the painting: trapped in a seemingly romantic scenario, one that has its beauty but is also stalked by shadows. You watch this confidently crafted film in admiring horror, wondering who will escape those shadows, and who will succumb.