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Peter Howell: The Souvenir a masterful study of love and deception

Peter Howell: The Souvenir a masterful study of love and deception
Entertainment
Starring Honor Swinton Byrne, Tom Burke, Tilda Swinton and Richard Ayoade. Written and directed by Joanna Hogg. Opens Friday at TIFF Bell Lightbox. 119 minutes. 14A

The Souvenir is titled for an enigmatic painting that fascinates the film’s central couple, Julie and Anthony (Honor Swinton Byrne and Tom Burke), as it does writer/director Joanna Hogg.

Dwarfed by larger works in the London museum where it hangs, the portrait by 18th-century French artist Jean-Honoré Fragonard is a pastoral vision of a woman in a forest, inscribing something onto the trunk of a tree.

“She’s just received word from her lover, and she’s carving his initials into a tree,” worldly Anthony tells impressionable Julie.

“It looks sad,” Julie says, observing curiously.

“I think she looks determined — and very much in love,” Anthony replies.

Hogg’s films, built around long takes and unspoken secrets and truths, bring to mind the novels of Patricia Highsmith (The Talented Mr. Ripley), who had a similar affinity for menace behind façades.

We immediately learn that Julie, an aspiring filmmaker in her early 20s, is trying hard to be something she’s not: a regular person. The daughter of affluent parents — her mother is played by Tilda Swinton, Swinton Byrne’s real-life mom — Julie has a flat in posh Knightsbridge and no apparent monetary concerns. Yet she wants to make a documentary about blue-collar workers at a Sunderland factory so she can “be really aware of what’s going on around me.”

We gradually learn, via the insinuation of the decade-older Anthony into Julie’s world (and her bed), that self-awareness is a whole other matter for her — one that she should be paying more attention to.

Anthony wears pinstriped suits with bow ties and claims to have an important job with Britain’s Foreign Office. He has an opinion about everything, whether it be art, politics or affairs of the heart. He speaks with a self-assuredness that often comes across as cocky or cruel, as when he tells Julie, “You’re lost, and you’ll always be lost.”

Julie, clearly if unaccountably smitten, tells Anthony he’s “arrogant and sexy,” an assertion that’s unassailable in its first part and highly debatable in its second part. (Joe Jackson’s “Is She Really Going Out With Him?” is heard on Julie’s stereo at one point, the film’s solitary on-the-nose moment.)

Anthony comes and goes and he never seems to have money. He’s always asking Julie for “loans” — 10 quid here, 200 there — which she obtains from her increasingly worried mother. The reason for Anthony’s behaviour becomes clear to the viewer long before it does to Julie, but Hogg manages to maintain suspense regardless. She knows what she’s doing, not least because the film is based on her own life.

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The Souvenir is a masterful portrait in own right, depicting love as an addiction for which there is no easy cure. Swinton Byrne and Burke make for one of the year’s most intriguing screen couples, although this is a romance based on anxiety, narcissism and opportunism rather than anything resembling genuine affection.

How I wish that Julie could make Fragonard’s painting literal, by carving Anthony’s initials into something — preferably his selfish hide rather than a tree.
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