The fourth and best film to date by the British writer-director Joanna Hogg, The Souvenir is at once a piercingly honest confessional and a kind of audience-baiting provocation. At almost every turn in its supple, semi-autobiographical narrative, it practically begs snide viewers to dismiss it as a movie of “middle-class problems” – that popular satirical tag used and memed endlessly on social media to put the privileged and mildly (but vocally) inconvenienced in their place. The complaint may be as banal as a bag of unripe avocados from Waitrose or more headline-making – positive discrimination against private school students in the university admissions game, say – but the response is uniform: you could have it so much worse.
That’s certainly true of Julie, Hogg’s seemingly self-based protagonist in The Souvenir, who enters the film swaddled in such privilege it takes us a while to see the internal bruising. A 24-year-old student at the National Film and Television School who hails from twinset-and-pearls countryside, living in a multi-storey Knightsbridge flat presumably bought by her genteel, conservative parents – literally around the corner from Harrods – she’s thus far lived a life so free of friction and conflict that she’s having trouble finding her own story to tell on screen.
Instead, she resorts to naked class tourism. At the outset, Hogg elegantly wrongfoots us with scratchy archive material from the Sunderland shipyards, revealed to be part of the pitch for Julie’s graduation film: a hard-up working-class family drama that sounds sincere in intent and utterly inauthentic in the details. It’s clear from her polite, halting, noncommittal presentation that Julie has no knowledge of the world we see in grainy black-and-white on screen; we’re in Thatcher-era Britain, after all, so her hazy liberal principles haven’t been subjected to Twitter-era trials for unchecked privilege and cultural appropriation.
To add to the long list of things she doesn’t know, Julie will soon be struck by very real, intense, cinematic tragedy in her cosseted corner of London: it’ll just first take the form of romance, as it so often does. Anthony, the ultra-posh Foreign Office worker she falls for in all senses of the term, is as loftily removed as she from grittier notions of everyday life, only he feels no compensatory guilt about it. “We don’t want to see life as it is,” he says, in an attempt to discourage her from her earnestly misguided Sunderland project. “We want to see it as it is experienced in this soft machine.” That machine, for him, takes the form of an expensively ruinous drug habit: a luxurious escape from reality, until it becomes a toxic reality in itself.
Whose reality is more real than anyone else’s? That’s the question quietly but firmly underpinning The Souvenir’s tender-tough examination of wealth, waste, art and heartbreak – as class politics define Julie’s coming of age in ways of which she’s both acutely self-conscious and, still, naively unaware. Class has been integral to all Hogg’s films. In her debut, Unrelated, it subtly defines a world of psychological difference between a group of bourgeois British holidaymakers and the slightly less comfy friend they allow to tag along; in her follow-up, Archipelago, it’s the elevated platform that isolates and aggravates a well-to-do family on a damp Cornish holiday, their small individual problems revealing more gaping internal vacancies by force of attrition. And in the chilly, challenging Exhibition, a nigh-insufferable pair of neo-boho Islington artists suffer a joint crisis after putting their sleek modernist house up for sale.
These are all films scored, effectively, to the tiniest of violins: the material stakes of Hogg’s narratives have always been daringly small. Yet the fine-grained detail of her characterisations invite her audience to sympathise with their middle-class problems – to identify the emotional ruptures and absences that can grow and widen in lives of apparent abundance, and the personal losses that no amount of financial wadding can fill. In The Souvenir, privilege brings two lovers together, but it can’t bind a relationship plagued by addiction and insecurity: Hogg’s frank, terrifying gaze into the well of extreme substance abuse is a rarity in middle-class-focused British cinema.
In its own way, then, The Souvenir is as much a work of social realism as the more rawly styled kitchen-sink dramas of Ken Loach – its characters are specifically, painfully recognisable, its milieu drawn and cut with a scalpel. Yet British film-makers have rarely subjected the cardigan-clad elite to the kind of close, penetrating scrutiny that has defined the country’s working-class cinema: Hogg, unlike Julie, writes what (and who) she knows, with the kind of simultaneously forgiving and unforgiving perspective that can only come from an inside job. Some of its middle-class problems spill over into more universal ones; others remain haughtily, realistically, rarefied.