Twenty-four year old Julie (Honor Swinton-Byrne) wants for nothing in life, bar artistic inspiration. As a film student, she avoids the starving artist stereotype by calling up her parents every time she needs supplies – “Mummy, I need two hundred pounds again!” – in order to continue treading water on multiple fruitless projects. Her airily considered ideas trace working class struggles that she will never experience, exemplifying the voyeurism of rich filmmakers for whom the dying towns beyond the Watford gap represent nothing but artistic potential. Through her character, Joanna Hogg has created the perfect representation of the precocious young woman, for whom opportunities will be created via wealth, rather than talent or work ethic. When the arrogant and manipulative Anthony (Tom Burke) comes swaggering into Julie’s life, however, she is soon forced to learn the heavy weight of adult responsibility, in the most painful way possible.
To watch this relationship develop is unpleasant to say the least. Each grotesque leer that Anthony throws in Julie’s direction is enough to make bile rise in the throat, and the feeling only worsens as the film continues to expand on his true nature. Hogg is careful never to romanticise the abuse that our heroine suffers, casting a largely negative light on his actions through an incredulous gaze: as Julie returns to Anthony again and again despite his behaviour, we despair for her, and collectively long for her to escape his clutches. It’s not an easy watch by any means, but Hogg’s refusal to counteract Anthony’s exploitation with any redeeming qualities thankfully precludes any kind of apologism.
On a deeper level, ‘The Souvenir’ interrogates an innocence inherent within the spoiled upper class child, as Hogg slowly destroys the shelter that had previously protected Julie from all harm. Scenes of Julie’s bedroom perfectly mimic the childlike nature of her circumstance, with rows of stuffed toys watching as she seduces her lover. Her mother – an exceptional Tilda Swinton, whose comedic timing is perfect as always – tucks her in one night, and this creates a frightening contrast to the sexual exploits that have occurred in that very same bed. The barrier between her childhood and her adulthood blurs due to the spoilt nature of her upbringing; as she pushes these boundaries through the excitement of a toxic relationship, she equally cannot stray from his control. Anthony may be dangerous, but she seeks his attention much like a child does from a parent, pushing their dynamic further and further into the realms of the deeply unhealthy.
Though the film delves into dark subject matter, a healthy dose of humour lifts the mood from time to time. Richard Ayoade’s cameo is a highlight in this regard – though his single scene may be short, those few minutes are some of the most memorable. Julie’s upbringing is mocked by those outside her social circles, providing a further source of guilty laughs. “I don’t suppose you really have to think about budget in Knightsbridge, do you?” one professor chides during a project consultation; these jabs may be cruel, but they reflect an understandable bitterness in an industry geared towards the rich. For those who share this bitterness, ‘The Souvenir’ may prove to be an excruciating watch, but in this portrait of a flawed class system, there are difficult truths to be found.
Read the rest of our Berlinale 2019 coverage here. Featured image © Agatha A. Nitecka.