When 20-something Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne) meets somewhat older Anthony (Tom Burke) at a film school party early on in Souvenir, you know exactly what their relationship will be all about. He’s pretentious and she’s attracted to that. She’s a young woman from a privileged background and an aspiring director, and he has some sort of important government job that they never really talk about. And their relationship develops with the understanding that he has the power. She’s fine with him telling her who she is and what she should want. She’s young and naive and he’s a user in every sense of the word. It’s the early 80s in London, too early to talk about toxic masculinity and mansplaining, but Anthony is the man for whom both concepts were invented. You find yourself wishing Julie would dump the guy from nearly the first moment they get together. But of course it’s not that simple. It’s a disturbing film, a series of moments in a dysfunctional and obsessive relationship that somehow you can’t look away from.
Julie’s film schooling is her background story, as she attempts to grow as an artist and come into her own. Anthony though lets on very little of his life beyond the walls, except for some references to exotic places he’s traveled for work, so it comes as a shock when Julie’s finds out from his friends that he’s a junkie. He’s addicted to heroine and has been asking her for money – ten pounds at a time – which she gets from her mother (Tilda Swinton, also her mother in real life) with lies about needing it for her film studies. But once she finds out, does she confront him? No. That’s one thing I had a hard time with in the story – Julie’s acceptance of Anthony’s lies. I’d think that keeping something so big as being a junkie would have been more of a deal breaker, or his theft of her personal items to sell for drugs, then telling her someone broke in. But she keeps coming back for more. And I guess that’s the point. These kinds of toxic relationships follow no logic. Love is love is love. Until it isn’t.
I never could understand the attraction or see the chemistry between the leads though. Both actors are very good in their roles, but there’s no real passion. And as narratives go, it’s not fleshed out much. It’s more a collection of memories from the director of a relationship she had while in film school that she’s now dramatizing. (She’s got a sequel coming, too.) And as such some of the scenes work better than others. It’s beautifully shot, though at times the shooting felt a bit too arty, and I wondered if that was a nod to the kinds of things we did in film school. All in all it is an affecting film, but probably mostly for the arty crowd. You know who you are.