'The Souvenir' film review: Staid in tone, radical in execution & tedious to endure
For better or for worse, the romantic drama "The Souvenir" (now playing select cities) is a film that is ... whatever is the polar opposite of exposition-laden storytelling. If nothing else, this ambitious and enigmatic film has one foot in bold experimental cinema and the other foot in something approximating traditional film.
Against all odds "The Souvenir" somehow works - in that it manages to tell a complete story despite its completely self-inflicted flaws. "Souvenir" is a patchwork of intimate and organic moments from Julie and Anthony's turbulent relationship. Initially, the sequencing of these scenes feels random and oddly juxtaposed: one moment they are just smoking together, the next shot is Julia looking at music and Anthony cooking in the kitchen. There's a protracted scene of the pair playfully discussing which one of them has more room on the bed.
At the micro-level, these incongruous and innocuous moments oddly jump from one odd filmed moment to the next. When taking a step back, however, these scenes provide a macro-level look at Julie's journey as a filmmaker and her love life with Anthony -- one that's told in a particularly fragmented method. "The Souvenir" takes a pretty radical strategy of removing the story's connective tissue almost entirely - and showing only the major (and some not-so-major) moments in Julie's story. For instance, one scene has Julie emotionally gutted when something happens to her -- and in just two scenes later, she confronts who hurt her. Most conventional films would take a moment to show just how Julie figured out who the perpetrator was and how that truth affected her - but "Souvenir" jumps directly to the confrontation. The film assumes the audience can accept glossing over the details without needing to spoon-feed them with every detail.
To the film's credit, this is a confident and refreshing bit of storytelling. And, surprisingly, "The Souvenir" actually tells a pretty precise story - mostly due to some well chosen moments to feature. While the film might be too stingy with some plot or character details, it does touch on emotionally significant moments that - when put together and viewed with some perspective - tells a pretty humane and moving coming-of-age story.
However, getting the audience acclimated to this unorthodox manner of storytelling is not without its drawbacks. "The Souvenir" practically challenges its audience to feel weight of their eye lids getting heavier and heavier during a laborious and meandering first act. Without any clear direction, the film deliberately doesn't allow the audience to get its bearings - the scenes initially seem random, if nuanced. It's not until almost 30 minutes into the runtime when something of interest finally occurs that finally gives dimension and shape to the story.
In the end, "The Souvenir" is a series of beautifully composed and personal inflection points ... that, in its totality, tells a story that is predictable and simple. For all its effort to take the most challenging narrative route possible, the film's story - if laid out plainly - is a sadly thin cautionary tale. Honor Swinton Byrne is a breakout star in this bold drama and Julie is afforded a rich character journey - but the same cannot be said of any other character. Anthony makes little to no effort to win over the audience's affection - which becomes a problem when he's increasingly harder and harder to like. It's difficult to care what happens to him or root for Julie and Anthony's relationship.
And for all risky abstract storytelling, "The Souvenir" is quite boring. The film seems to delight in its patience-testing tedium and wandering exchanges that at times go nowhere. Tantalizing plot elements are teased, then unceremoniously abandoned. One of the last shots in the film is a mechanical door opening ... and it simply goes on and on, seemingly forever. Julie's father expounds at great length on the hypothetical scenario "what would you do if you had to go back to school" - a detail that adds little to the movie (aside from padding the runtime). More judicious editing - even just nip tucks here and there - could make the jarring shifts between disparate scenes more palatable.
Final verdict: "The Souvenir" earns degree-of-difficulty points for its impressionistic take on a relationship drama -- which barely offsets major deductions for its glacial pacing, predictable trajectory and simple themes. Relying on only what amounts to a relationship’s highlight reel makes it difficult to invest in the characters.
"The Souvenir" is now playing in select cities. This romantic drama has a running time of 120 minutes and is rated R for some sexuality, graphic nudity, drug material and language.