The Souvenir is good, very good, in a way that means that many will not like it. It is meticulous, in vision and presentation. It is hauntingly authentic, to the eye and to the heart. And it is punishingly boring.
Boredom in films can be good, I think. It works here. The Souvenir’s story is fairly familiar coming-of-age drama: Julie, an ambitious film student, navigates a life-changing relationship with the charming but mysterious Anthony as she works her way through film school. But director Joanna Hogg expertly constructs the story from all the moments that might be cut from a more typical drama. Scenes end before major conflicts come to a head, or begin once fights are in their denouement. The story unfolds chronologically but rarely establishes how much time has passed since the previous scene. A reliable story, unconventionally told, and wonderfully depicted. But also a two-hour film that is essentially composed of moments and not of scenes.
If you’ve read Karl Ove Knausgård, you might understand the peculiar frustrations of The Souvenir. Every frame of the movie brims with cinematic life. It is austere, and quiet, and slow, but it is absolutely lived-in. As Julie and Anthony, Honor Swinton Byrne and Tom Burke offer performances so authentic that The Souvenir can feel like documentary (a concept dangled within the film itself—more on that in a moment). You might say that the movie is never boring because it always feels real. But you might say, too, that it’s boring because it feels real. If this were a documentary, you’d wonder why they stuck you with the B-roll.
Look: this is a film in a certain tradition. It will be eagerly embraced by arthouse audiences and extensively written on in Humanities departments. Elsewhere, it will be declared tedious, and probably defined by that most telling of words: pretentious. It would be hard to fault either view, and that is as it should be. The Souvenir is a film of particularity, and for this it should be celebrated. It will deserve all of the love and hate that comes its way.