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The Souvenir - A semi-autobiographical knockout

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From Joanna Hogg comes The Souvenir, a rich semi-autobiographical knockout that recounts the director's personal experience at film school in the 80s. Julie, played by newcomer Honor Swinton-Byrne, navigates her patriarchal university structure, socialises with fellow art student types (including Richard Ayoade on typical comedic form), and falls for a puzzling boyfriend who works for the Foreign Office.

Missing numerous red flags, Julie is swept off her feet by Anthony (Tom Burke) as he takes her on extravagant trips to Venice and buys her racy lingerie. During an outing to an art gallery, they stop to examine the painting The Souvenir by Jean-Honore Fragonard. "She looks sad," observes Julie. "I think she looks determined," says Anthony, "And very much in love."

Initially seeming well put-together, smart and quite pretentious, it's not long before Anthony's frequent money scrounging and the scars on his arm, not to mention his manipulative emotional distance, betray his lifestyle as a heroin addict. This toxic relationship is a uniquely fraught emotional centre for a film about first love and the increasingly mythologized period of the 80s, but The Souvenir only ever feels felt, rather than recreated. It's obvious how much Hogg is putting out on the table, how much these memories hurt to hold up to retrospective light.

In a post Stranger Things era, you'll count no gratuitous pop music needle drops or opaque cultural references. This is the 80s as lived, not as advertised, complete with a tense IRA backdrop. It's so visually grounded that only someone who actually lived it could have filmed it in such a way, with long, patient takes combined with smoky, rose-tinted lighting. The Souvenir savours every scene, soaking up every dinner party and luxuriating in every reminiscence, first love framed through cinematic bliss.

And yet somehow Hogg successfully walks the tightrope of never quite descending into nostalgic indulgence. With a title like The Souvenir, it's impressive that the director never loses herself in sentiment or first-love clichés, instead gracefully combing through her memories with humor and self-awareness.

By the film's end it's Julie herself who has captured our empathy because Hogg never shies away from her naivety. The middle-class privilege she tries to run away from, her ambitious film ideas and her inevitable broken heart make her a fully three-dimensional protagonist, and make The Souvenir one of the most vulnerable films you'll ever see - and easily one of the year's best.

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