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The Souvenir is a beautiful, personal memoir on film. It’s one of the year’s best.

Honor Swinton Byrne stars alongside her mother, Tilda Swinton, in an exquisite story drawn from director Joanna Hogg’s youth.

Honor Swinton Byrne in The Souvenir.
Honor Swinton Byrne in The Souvenir.
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

It’s difficult to get your footing in The Souvenir, Joanna Hogg’s extraordinary memoir-in-a-film about a youthful romance gone very sour. It unfolds as a cascade of memories. Characters are not introduced so much as they first appear in the background of a scene and then, in the next, become central. Sometimes we catch a quick glimpse of a half-focused face, and by the time we figure out what we’re looking at, we’re on to the next moment. There’s a meal here, a glance there, a still landscape while a letter is read in voiceover; sometimes days or weeks elapse between scenes, time sliding inexorably forward.

The Souvenir doesn’t knit the threads together too tightly. It asks us to weave ourselves in.

Which is somehow just right for a movie like this. Starring Honor Swinton Byrne and Tilda Swinton in art-imitates-life turns as daughter and mother, and Tom Burke as the younger woman’s ill-fated boyfriend, it’s an exquisite work of remembrance and reckoning. Its storytelling is chronological but not sequential, recalling films like last year’s Cold War (also based on a true, doomed romance) or Mike Leigh’s Another Year (2010) and Mr. Turner (2014). We’re invited by the filmmaker to draw on our own imagination, to fill in what’s happened in the space between moments. In that way, the storytelling becomes collaborative.

Couple that technique with outstanding performances by Byrne, Burke, and Swinton and a visual style marked by just a hint of sepia-tinted reminiscence, and The Souvenir clearly stands out as one of the year’s best films: pointedly personal art that somehow manages, in its specificity, to hit on something universal.

The Souvenir reclaims and reconstructs the memories of its director

The Souvenir is the fourth feature film for Hogg, a former music video and TV director, and though her previous three — Unrelated (2008), Archipelago (2010), and Exhibition (2013) — feature familiar faces (notably Tom Hiddleston) and garnered praise and prizes at international festivals, her work hasn’t been widely seen in the US. With The Souvenir, which premiered to raves and the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance in January, that all seems poised to change.

And audiences won’t just get to know Hogg’s work; they’ll get to know her, too.

Tom Burke and Honor Swinton Byrne in The Souvenir.
Tom Burke and Honor Swinton Byrne in The Souvenir.
Agatha A. Nitecka/A24

The Souvenir is a roman à clef for Hogg, based closely on her own youthful experiences. (She plans the film to be the first of two parts, the second dealing with the aftermath of the first’s events.) Byrne plays a young film student named Julie (Hogg’s avatar), who starts her artistic education with high hopes of making a movie about a boy named Tony, living in working-class Sunderland, who adores his mother — “is almost obsessed with her,” as eager Julie tells her advisers. Her idealism is evident from the start.

The advisers are skeptical, and no wonder; Julie’s family is posh, with a comfortable country estate and plenty of money to support her as she studies, even though her mother (Swinton, one of Hogg’s oldest friends) encourages her to “keep a ledger” of her expenditures. But she’s unendingly starry-eyed, a trait that lands her in a relationship with the slightly older, arrogant, world-weary Anthony (Burke). He gently courts her and edges into her life until he’s basically living with her.

It’s evident from the start, to us, that Anthony has a drug problem, particularly with heroin; Julie notes the track marks on his arms the first time they sleep together, but she’s too naive to realize what she’s seeing. So she’s blindsided later when a friend, with knowledge of Anthony’s heroin habit and bemused by the couple’s apparent mismatch, asks over dinner how the two of them “tessellate.”

The Souvenir is a painfully precise story of what it is to be in love with someone with addiction — to weather the disappearances, the stolen money, the lies, the heartbreak. At the same time, it’s a coming-of-age story for Julie, whose ideas about what she wants to do in film change drastically over time, just as her youthful naiveté is being sloughed away.

Hogg’s camera renders Julie’s emotional state while filling out her world, often in wide shots filled with detail that give us plenty to know about her: what she likes, what she values, where she feels comfortable, from college parties to fancy tea rooms. Occasionally it pushes in on her, letting us watch her emotions change, or it goes abstract altogether, blurred objects in the foreground, a flash of an image Hogg remembers from that time. We don’t remember things as they are; we remember them as they appear to us now, from the distance of years, with the gentleness and ruefulness that accompany the passage of time.

The realism of The Souvenir makes specificity universal

In interviews following the festival release of The Souvenir, Hogg and Swinton have spoken about the director’s unusual working style. Whereas many filmmakers shoot scenes out of order, in order to capitalize on locations, resources, and actors’ schedules, Hogg shoots chronologically, beginning with the film’s first scene. The story and relationships between the characters therefore unfold and evolve as the actors are feeling them out.

That’s not unique — The Shining, The Breakfast Club, and The Revenant were all shot chronologically, among many others. But Hogg’s directorial style involves collaborating with her actors: She starts a scene by giving them an idea of what will happen, then works with them to shoot the scene several times, crafting the action and giving notes on the dialogue as they feel the scene out along with her.

Honor Swinton Byrne and Tom Burke in The Souvenir.
Honor Swinton Byrne and Tom Burke in The Souvenir.

The result feels naturalistic, true to the performers’ interpretation of their characters as well as the story’s emotional beats. And in The Souvenir, that realism extends to the way Hogg reconstructs some of her memories, at times very specifically; for instance, the apartment in which Julie lives was built from Hogg’s memory of her own apartment during that period in her life.

All of this sounds, on paper, a little like a movie Hogg is making for only herself. But the beauty and mystery of specificity in storytelling is that the more precisely the details draw on the artist’s memory, the more universal the story often feels. The Souvenir comes to us through Hogg’s eyes, a memory deftly filtered through her recollection of what she saw, thought, and felt. But even if you never had your own Anthony, or your own similar artistic aspirations, there’s something so truthful in the telling that you’re living alongside Julie, sketching in between the lines Hogg has laid down.

The Souvenir, then, is aptly named: It is the past kept alive by what we bring into the present. Those memories that stick with us are souvenirs of our past selves, the people we loved and still love, the stumbles that built up our calluses and made us who we are, now.

The Souvenir opens in theaters on May 17.

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