Joanna Hogg is one of the few current British directors whose work is instantly recognisable. She makes forensic, minutely observed dramas about (to put it crudely) posh folk. Hogg is relentless in the way she probes into the lives of seemingly confident and privileged characters, exposing their vulnerabilities, prejudices and what she has described as “the inner mechanisms” of their minds and hearts. Her films have humorous and satirical elements but are often very bleak indeed.
Hogg’s latest feature, The Souvenir – screening this week at the Berlin Film Festival after its premiere in Sundance – is exceptional. Executive produced by Martin Scorsese, it is a very dark romance that is all the more devastating because of the very British restraint with which its story is told. The film has a superb performance from newcomer Honor Swinton Byrne (whose mother Tilda Swinton also appears) as the ingenuous young film student in a destructive relationship with an older man.
The setting is London in the early 1980s. This is the era of the Libyan embassy siege and of the IRA planting bombs in Harrods. It’s a time of unemployment, inflation and social and political discord. Not that the characters here seem affected by what is going on around them. As in most of Hogg’s films, they are upper middle-class types who exist in a bubble.
Julie (Swinton Byrne) is in her early twenties. She is pale skinned and softly spoken but her shyness belies her ambition. “I feel as if I don’t want to live my whole life in this very privileged part of the world,” she says at one stage. She may have a flat in Knightsbridge but she is planning to make a feature set in Sunderland.
Her older boyfriend Anthony (Tom Burke) works for the Foreign Office, or claims he does. He is cultured, worldly wise, a bit debauched and not as well off as his extravagant lifestyle suggests.
The title of the film comes from an 18th century painting by Jean-Honoré Fragonard held in the Wallace Collection and showing a young woman carving the initials of her lover into the bark of a tree.
Hogg shoots in her customary detached style, often filming characters from oblique angles, sideways, or from behind, or reflected on mirrors, rather than head on.
The tension mounts as Anthony’s behaviour becomes ever more erratic. He may dress in smartly tailored suits, stripy shirts and custom-made slippers but he is skint. Lend me a tenner, he keeps on asking his young girlfriend. She, in turn, begs money from her mother (played by Tilda Swinton), telling her she needs it for camera equipment for her film. The mother is a tweedy, home counties matron but one with surprisingly progressive views.
One of the incidental pleasures of the film is that it is set in an analogue era. There are no mobile phones or iPads. The characters here listen to music all the time but on vinyl or cassette. A very rich and eclectic Eighties soundtrack includes everything from Robert Wyatt’s elegiac Shipbuilding to songs by Bola Deposit Pulsa, The Pretenders and Jona Lewie. There is opera, jazz and classical music, too.
The Souvenir is also packed with references to other movies. Julie is a precocious young film student so it is little surprise that she knows her Psycho inside out. Anthony is a fervent admirer of Powell and Pressburger and of screwball comedies like It Happened One Night. The relationship between them is similar to that between Ingrid Bergman or Joan Fontaine and the older men in films like Rebecca or Voyage to Italy. She is a little naive. He is a mysterious and saturnine figure.