“The Souvenir” is a very good movie about a bad boyfriend, the kind of man a woman outgrows even as he forces her to grow up. The film does something curious, though: It acknowledges the boyfriend’s badness while refusing to moralize about it. Unlike writer-director Joanna Hogg’s earlier movies, this one is deeply autobiographical, mulling over her youthful relationship with a genteel but ruinous heroin addict while hammering remembrance into art. The title refers to a Fragonard painting of a young girl carving her beloved’s initials in a tree, but since “The Souvenir” is the movie equivalent of same, the title mostly explains itself.
The heroine, Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne), is a London film student when the movie opens, well off and with the requisite embarrassments about her privilege. She wants to make a movie about dockworkers in the north of England, a subject of which she knows nothing. When a sleepy-eyed acquaintance in his 30s tells her that just won’t do, she finds herself shamed and listening as he insists on the primacy of perceived, not received, wisdom. “We don’t know what the inner machinations of their minds are, or their hearts,” he says of her characters. “But that’s what we want to know when we go and see a film. . . . We want to see life as it is experienced within this soft machine.”
This is Anthony (Tom Burke), arch, experienced, superior. For American audiences less attuned to the nuances of early-1980s British class and culture, he’ll have a whiff of Upper Class Prat. He’s in the Foreign Service – doing what is never entirely clear – and has gone native in exotic locales; he has Lived, whereas Julie is still figuring out what that even means. He praises her while seeming to mock her, and vice versa. To an uncertain young woman, he is irresistible.
Byrne is an acting first-timer — that hesitancy is reportedly why Hogg cast her — but she comes from good stock: Her mother, a longtime friend of the director’s, is Tilda Swinton, and Swinton plays Julie’s mother, Rosalind, with an older woman’s wardrobe and bearing that’s immensely touching. One throwaway gesture — Rosalind picking up Julie’s hand and silently tsk-ing at the chewed cuticles — will resonate with mothers and daughters everywhere, so right does it feel.
But all of “The Souvenir” feels right, even when the heroine is behaving in ways that make you want to talk back to the screen. Studiously bohemian, Julie remains naïve about about Anthony’s drug use until one of his friends (played by filmmaker Richard Ayoade) clues her in. She subsequently enables, excuses, apologizes when she shouldn’t — the latter after Anthony has admitted to staging a break-in at their flat so he can sell her jewelry for drug money.
Today we call this codependency. Hogg situates the relationship within the repressions of her country and class as well as ona continuum of can’t-help-lovin’-dat-man masochism and lousy self-esteem. It’s all very easy to judge from a movie theater seat, less so when one is trying to reassess one’s youth with as much clarity as possible.
“The Souvenir” is the first of Hogg’s films to attract larger notice in the States, and the irony is that it’s atypical of her earlier work. The first three movies – “Unrelated” (2007), “Archipelago” (2010), and “Exhibition” (2013) – are currently streaming as a mini-festival on The Criterion Channel and are highly recommended. Coolly formal in style, they examine tense family and group dynamics with a minimum of artifice (no soundtrack music, for one thing). In their almost forensic attention to the subtleties with which people who love each other drive each other crazy, they can be devastating. (The first, “Unrelated,” is probably the easiest entry point.)
By contrast, “The Souvenir” ripples with remembered emotions and even music, since Anthony’s taste for modernist opera tends to drown out Julie’s more period-appropriate post-punk leanings. When I first saw the new film at this January’s Sundance Film Festival, it took me half the movie to find its rhythm, but I was spellbound once I did, held in what felt like a new kind of movie language. A colleague next to me also liked it but felt it paled a bit next to Hogg’s earlier films; having now seen those, I’m inclined to agree.
But that’s hardly a bad thing and “The Souvenir” demands to be seen. Hogg is a major filmmaker pointing herself in new directions -- the past and future simultaneously – and hashing out the places where memory tells the truth and where it only offers more romanticism, more lies. “Life as experienced within this soft machine,” as it were. According to a recent New Yorker profile, Hogg is currently filming a sequel about Julie’s post-Anthony years and the process by which a young woman acquires confidence and craft. Movie by movie, she’s catching up to herself.
Written and directed by Joanna Hogg. Starring Honor Swinton Byrne, Tom Burke, Tilda Swinton. At Kendall Square, Coolidge Corner. 115 minutes. R (some sexuality, graphic nudity, drug material, language).