I have read criticisms of Joanna Hogg’s formal austerity, particularly as it pertains to audience connection. What good is it, they say, if the film purposely frustrates our ability to unlock these characters and their milieus? Why watch these lives if we are prevented from fully accessing them? And it’s true, Hogg is not keen on divulging easy throughlines for us. The Souvenir is, after all, a memory piece with an intimate basis in her past, and some memories lie with us too closely to be made readily accessible to the masses. The hardest memories are the ones we cringe at because they are full of hurt or embarrassment; like surgical scars they are etched in permanence, our hippocampus the locked door from which they can never escape us. The Souvenir is Hogg’s initial sifting of these hard memories, after the toil of years and practical experience have wizened her. It is looking back on the genesis of her art with the final chapter of revelation, when she can see it with clearer eyes (the caveat being that the recollections are imperfect and faded). For our purposes she dresses it up in some fictionalized sense—names are changed, events are altered, timelines shifted. It is not a full-blown confessional that strives to lay bear every dart of truth. But there is enough in this that is Hogg’s to own alone, and therefore she is allowed to make the entry difficult. We are mere guests in her humble flat, watching from afar as a young woman strives to make the first inroads as a filmmaker. A woman who has not yet learned how to fully assert herself, who is diffident about her abilities, who is still stuck in her own privilege, and who is far from the pinnacle of her strength. She is a woman, moreover, who engages the first pulsations of her art through the frame of love. A dark, annihilating, hopeless love that takes away more than it gives—and yet to create a love that can sustain is also to create the same kind of art. To hold on when tragic love storms through means that one’s art can also be made durable. Hogg remembers this love with a mixture of nostalgia and regret, knowing that this man who engulfed her world was not particularly good, but knowing also that loving him was an important step to bringing her to where she is today. In the trials and hardships of this love came the gift of maturity. The artist was born in its wake.
The entry is difficult because Hogg is so rigorous in the transference from memory to mimesis. The world she knew must come to life as it was and hold the insight she gleaned after the fact. To meet in the temporal middle means that precision is everything, for everything is of value in communicating her story: the muted colour palette, the exact position of furniture, the way certain scenes are blocked, the way faces are obscured or transformed from differing perspectives. What she remembers needs to be altered to signify the very fact that she is now a master in a state of recollection, telling the story of her artistic growth with the logical endpoint of everything that she has learned. Every technique learnt in school, every casual pointer picked up in conversation, every aesthetic trick gathered from her contemporaries and needed to convey her distinct creative truth is employed. And it’s incredible. From every which way, Hogg conveys to us that The Souvenir has been sewn together with the utmost attention and care, as this is the only way that she can truly honour the story she tells of her past. Yes, it’s daunting to behold. It’s not something that will warm your soul with easy sentiment. Your patience will be taxed. The characters will do and say things that you will not understand. In life, Hogg surely must have felt similarly—maybe even feels similarly still. And yet she does not play those feelings down. Confronting them means seeing them as they were, and the catharsis is found in resurrecting them with the powers of her art. For now, at long last, she can tell us clearly that she knows where she stands. No longer the apprentice, she can now command the volley of memory and find her conquering peace.