The Unexpected Feminism of The Souvenir

Image courtesy of A24.

**** (out of 4)

Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir recounts the romantic travails of Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne), a 20-something woman who lives in 1980s London. An aspiring filmmaker, Julie is the kind of young person who earnestly, idealistically speaks of not wanting to live a life of “privilege.” Despite this, however, she ends up falling in love with Anthony (Tom Burke),  an older man whose affected manner, opinionated views on art, and penchant for opera all make him seem like the epitome of wealth and elitism.

If you were just going by this basic plot summary, you could be forgiven for thinking that you’ve seen films like The Souvenir before. In the character of Julie, for one, Hogg has created what could seem like yet another variation on the trope of the ingénue. Furthermore, given that The Souvenir’s narrative centers on Julie and Anthony’s relationship, you’ll inevitably be reminded of the many, many films that have already been made about young women in love with older men, from Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca to last year’s remake of A Star Is Born.

As anyone who’s seen them knows, these age-gap romance films are often implicitly sexist, emphasizing the struggles of the tragically tormented man instead of those of the servile woman. In the particular case of The Souvenir, moreover, it might seem like Hogg simply wants to continue this trend. As we learn, after all, the film’s title refers to a Jean-Honoré Fragonard painting of a scene from Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Julie, or the New Heloise – a novel that readily exemplifies Rousseau’s backward view of women as “the sex that ought to obey.”

Meanwhile, it doesn’t seem to help Hogg’s case, either, that Anthony and Julie’s relationship proves rather problematic. Far from being gentlemanly, Anthony’s behavior could more accurately be described as emotionally abusive. A heroin addict, he frequently condescends to and manipulates Julie, at one point going so far as to steal her money. Worse, Julie rarely stands up for herself in these instances: in what might on paper sound like a demeaning illustration of passivity, she invariably ends up finding reasons to stay with him.

Image courtesy of A24.

Despite its reliance on what in the abstract seem like sexist clichés, however, The Souvenir doesn’t feel remotely sexist in practice. Of the many reasons why, one of the more obvious ones has to do with the narrative’s point of view. Unlike films like A Star Is Born, The Souvenir chooses to make the woman the protagonist instead of her male lover: in other words, Hogg prioritizes Julie’s story over Anthony’s. This ensures that we instinctively identify more with Julie than with Anthony, and as a result, it inherently becomes more difficult to see Julie as a person without agency.

Meanwhile, as many critics have pointed out, The Souvenir also benefits from excellent performances. Byrne and Burke could’ve simplified their respective characters by turning them into a docile victim and a callous bully. Instead, their portrayals carry great nuance. Byrne’s Julie may be overly forgiving, but that passivity belies the ambition she exhibits in her professional life – and while Burke’s Anthony is abusive, he also “gets” parts of Julie’s character like nobody else. Together, then, Byrne and Burke turn an apparently female-subordinating relationship into something more complex, a relationship in which Julie is less an innocent than a person who’s trying to figure out who she is and what exactly she wants out of life.

Image courtesy of A24.

In terms of narrative perspective and acting, then, The Souvenir clearly defines itself as feminist. But while it’s tempting to stop there, I’d argue that the film’s feminist intentions also manifest themselves in the way it engages with Laura Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” For those who aren’t familiar, this is the 1974 academic essay that famously introduced the concept of the “male gaze,” an idea that has since become quite well-known in non-academic circles as well.

For the tl;dr crowd, here’s the gist of what Mulvey says. Through their form, traditional narrative films both enable and embrace the objectification of female bodies. Notably, the most obvious way they do this is through point-of-view (POV) shots – namely, shots of female characters in which the camera is positioned so that it represents the vantage point of a male character. By directly adopting the perspective of male characters, these shots make you identify with said characters’ desire for their female counterparts, thus reducing female characters to little more than sex objects.

Beyond POV shots, moreover, traditional narrative films also engender objectification through their insistence on creating what you could call the “illusion of reality.” To put it differently, if a traditional narrative film is well-made, you won’t feel like you’re watching a movie. Even though there technically exists a barrier between you and the characters – namely, the projection screen itself – the film will have given you the illusion that you’re in the same world as that of the characters. In this way, traditional narrative films remove the barrier that the screen creates between you and the characters, and Mulvey’s claim is that this removal facilitates and encourages character objectification.

Image courtesy of A24.

In The Souvenir, I can think of three ways in which Hogg applies Mulvey’s ideas. To start, there are no POV shots from Anthony’s perspective. Quite the contrary: if my memory serves me well, the few POV shots that appear in the film are actually all shot from Julie’s perspective. Tellingly, moreover, two of these shots are close-ups of Fragonard’s aforementioned painting: the first one is of the painting itself, while the second features a postcard version.

With these female-based POV shots, The Souvenir subverts one of the key mechanisms behind the male gaze. In essence, Hogg takes the POV shot, a technique that traditionally privileges the viewpoints of men, and transforms it into a tool for conveying a female worldview instead. Moreover, this approach of hers proves particularly significant in the aforementioned POV shots of Fragonard’s painting. In them, you could say that Hogg re-appropriates Rousseau and Fragonard’s works, nullifying their demeaning portrayals of a female personage by subordinating them to the autonomous, controlling gaze of a woman.

POV shots aside, The Souvenir also stands out for two unconventional aspects of its structure. The first one concerns transitions between scenes. Traditionally, on the one hand, adjacent scenes in narrative films are designed to be temporally and spatially similar. In other words, the differences between adjacent scenes’ setting and temporality are usually kept to a minimum – and if they’re not, the film tries to “bridge” them with techniques like montages (to indicate the passage of time) or establishing shots (to make sure we fully grasp where the new scene is taking place). As academics like David Bordwell have argued, the objective of this approach is to make inter-scene transitions as smooth and unnoticeable as possible, thereby helping you forget that you’re “just” watching a film.

Image courtesy of A24.

In contrast to this traditional approach, however, The Souvenir’s transitions are both abrupt and jarring. Spatially, for one, adjacent scenes in the film jump between completely disparate locations, like Julie’s apartment, Venice, Julie’s film school, the countryside, and high-end restaurants. Moreover, these scenes are also temporally disjointed: you’re never entirely sure how much time has passed between any given pair of scenes. Since The Souvenir never tries to “bridge” these various disparities, it feels distinctly impressionistic – instead of presenting an unbroken chronology of events, it’s a string of disconnected snapshots that force you to consciously, constantly ask where and when things are happening.

From here, the other distinguishing feature of The Souvenir’s structure is what I’ll call its “environment shots.” As the name implies, these are shots of environments – urban or rural – and they intermittently appear throughout the film. Roughly speaking, half of them are night-time views of London that are shot from various vantage points: one of them offers a bird’s-eye view of city lights, another shows a church’s reflection in some body of water, and so on. Conversely, the other half of these environment shots are shots of a patch of sky that are taken at different points in time. In one shot, for instance, the sky is clear, while it’s covered in clouds in another.

Ultimately, what’s most interesting about these environment shots is that they interrupt the narrative at unexpected and apparently random moments. At various points throughout the film, in other words, Hogg will give us a scene that features Julie doing something, suddenly cut to one of these environment shots, and then return to some other scene that features Julie. Importantly, in terms of their setting, temporality, and subject matter, these environment shots bear no clear relation to the scenes that immediately precede and follow them.

Image courtesy of A24.

On the whole, The Souvenir’s impressionistic structure and environment shots both “shatter” the illusion of reality. By defying traditional notions of continuity, temporality, and narrative relevance, these two elements of The Souvenir’s form force you to consciously think about what you’re seeing on screen. In so doing, they remind you that you’re “only” watching a film, and in that sense, they reinforce the barrier that the presence of a screen creates between you and the narrative world.

The point of all this becomes clear when you recall what Mulvey says in “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” As mentioned earlier, one of Mulvey’s main arguments is that traditional narrative films facilitate character objectification by eliminating screen barriers. By strengthening the screen barrier, then, The Souvenir hampers the process of objectification – and as such, you could say that it thereby repudiates another key mechanism behind the male gaze.   

Image courtesy of A24.

In sum, The Souvenir manages to overcome the apparent clichés in its subject matter to merit being called feminist. In part, this is thanks to things like the acting and Hogg’s decision to make Julie the story’s protagonist. But The Souvenir’s feminist feel also stems from how it harnesses the ideas of Laura Mulvey: through its unorthodox structure and female-based POV shots, the film subverts the male-gaze-based worldview that typically characterizes age-gap romance films.

Granted, the analysis I’ve offered of The Souvenir in this essay is hardly exhaustive. Beyond the film’s environment shots and narrative structure, for instance, you could also talk about the geometric mise-en-scène and the way it “deromanticizes” Julie and Anthony’s relationship. (Or, for that matter, the film’s dark palette and the pessimistic view of their romance that it implicitly advances. And so on.) Yet however you look at it, The Souvenir is clearly a film that isn’t content to just make female empowerment a narrative theme. Rather, it weaves feminist subversion into its underlying formal constitution – and as I see it, that’s one of the main reasons why it deserves to be celebrated and remembered.

***

The Souvenir (2019)

Starring: Honor Swinton Byrne, Tom Burke, Tilda Swinton

Running Time: 115 minutes

MPAA Rating: R, “for some sexuality, graphic nudity, drug material and language.”

Produced by: Joanna Hogg, Luke Schiller

Written and Directed by: Joanna Hogg