Grief is the Point: On Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir 

A scene from The Souvenir
Agatha A. Nitecka/A24

The first time I tried to sit through The Souvenir, I left the theater halfway through. It was hard for me to stomach the way the film reflected, almost beat by beat, some of my own experiences. I was in my 20s, worried that my creative ambitions outpaced my talent, and had just left my arts graduate program when I fell very intensely in love with someone whose serious addiction to heroin I realized much later into our relationship than I probably should have. 

It can be a disorienting way to experience a movie, to feel as if you’re watching your own life. I suppose it’s not surprising that I felt that way; addiction follows certain and specific patterns. It’s cyclical in nature: the getting sick and the getting well; the periods of sobriety followed by relapse. I would guess most narratives that center addiction look remarkably familiar to those who’ve experienced it. Jade Sharma, in her novel Problems, writes, “One of the greatest myths of addiction is that it’s interesting. It’s the most boring thing anyone could ever do.”

The Souvenir follows Julie, a student at film school in London, as she becomes romantically involved with Anthony, whose addiction to heroin is slowly revealed. The movie is rarely discussed without mention of the way it was filmed. Written and directed by Joanna Hogg, it was almost entirely improvised and shot in chronological order. Instead of a script, the actors received a short transcript for each scene. Honor Swinton Byrne, who plays Julie, didn’t meet Tom Burke, the actor who plays Anthony, until they both walked into the first scene. The film is also semi-autobiographical, inspired by a relationship Hogg had in the 1980s while in film school. Much of the movie takes place in a reconstruction of Hoggs’ 1980s apartment.

There’s not a ton of plot. In the movie, scenes cut away during the moments of highest tension, or you enter a scene without a concrete idea of what preceded it. Watching it, it’s not always clear what’s happening, though one can guess. In one scene, Julie is sick in bed, a doctor hovering over her and speaking about an infection, while Anthony stands in the background. “Anything you want to tell me that you haven’t told me about what’s happening so far?” Julie demurs, the scene cuts away, and it’s never brought up again. In another scene, Anthony is clearly detoxing, he’s covered in vomit and blood, shivering and wrapped in a blanket while Julie cries in the doorway. As the viewer, I’m not certain if Anthony is detoxing by choice or is forced to by circumstance; that scene isn’t mentioned by either one of the characters for the remainder of the movie.

This jumping around has earned the film some criticism for being shallow and for a lack of interiority. There’s almost no exposition. The film seems relatively uninterested in moralizing or offering commentary on either of its leads’ choices, which might be a result of the scenes being largely unscripted, but I imagine also has to do with its fidelity to experience, feeling, and memory over narrative. Hogg intersperses scenes with excerpts of the real letters written to her by the man Anthony is based on, as well as Super 8 film footage she took in 1986. The overall effect is a feeling of intense intimacy held at a remove.

Relationships with addicts, romantic or otherwise, are dominated by conversations about codependency and enablement. Therapists, support groups, and online message boards often offer the same advice: under no circumstances should you shield an addict from the consequences of their actions. If they lose their job, they lose their job. If they risk homelessness, let them be homeless. If they have no money for food, don’t cook them a meal and watch them eat it. Another truth hovers over this, often unstated, which is that the consequence for many kinds of drug use is often death. Free of the bonds of family, when it comes to romantic relationships with an addict, the answer to do I go or do I stay seems to be more of a conscious choice. If you resist the pathologies surrounding love and codependency, if you stay, then, well, you deserve what happens to you. If you cut and run, are angry and blame the person; if you seize up when someone tries to hand you a laminated card with the serenity prayer on it or lectures you about brain chemistry, then you are heartless and don’t understand what addiction really is. I think we cleave to these two narratives, often simultaneously, because it’s more comforting than acknowledging that we live in a country that doesn’t make it easy to survive; care is often outsourced to individual mothers, fathers, children, or partners who lack institutional support and struggle to find the physical, emotional, and financial resources necessary to deal with substance use disorders and the fallout from destructive addiction cycles, and who are then stigmatized for both the support they give, and the support they withhold. 

The Souvenir is set in 1980s London, so I can’t comment on what resources were or weren’t available then, or on the nuances of the political situation, but watching the movie as an American in the 2010s, I felt deeply grateful that it doesn’t take a didactic approach to Julie’s choices. It doesn’t romanticize her relationship with Anthony either; it’s clear throughout the run of the film that her relationship with Anthony is destructive. He robs her and lies to her; he makes her doubt her own feelings; he makes her sick. 

Watching the ways in which Julie continually forgives Anthony throughout the film for the way he treats her can be painful. When he stages a break-in to hide the fact that he has robbed her (presumably for drug money), Julie ends up apologizing to him when she finds out. “I’m sorry for giving you a hard time,” she says, “I’m sorry. I’m sorry.” She moves towards him; the first time I watched the scene, I was afraid she was going to end up kneeling at his feet.

Narratives that center addiction are often concerned with questions of guilt, redemption, and forgiveness. Some of these are really good (the film Rachel Getting Married comes to mind) and some of them are just okay. The narrative arc towards resolution and redemption is a tendency of all fiction, not just addiction stories. One function of art is that it forces meaning onto reality; it shapes it, narrativizes it, and makes it easier to understand and accept. I’ve seen a lot of art about drugs—heroin in particular—but in real life, heroin is one of the most meaningless things I’ve ever seen. I’m not referring to the reasons why people use it—trauma, bad luck, pain, unscrupulous doctors, etc.—but the drug itself and what it does to people. If I had to make a film about someone’s heroin addiction, it would just be a person smashing themselves, repeatedly, into a solid wall. I sometimes think the more meaningless something is, the more desperate we are to contain it in neat stories, to attach to it morals and platitudes. There is the political imperative too, to representing these stories in particular ways; their real-life subjects are already so dehumanized, presenting morally complicated or ambiguous narratives about them might be viewed as a justification for their criminalization and poor treatment.

In her memoir Bandit, the author Molly Brodak questions the ways in which trauma and pain are almost always depicted in art as a precursor to redemption and reward. She writes, “this view of pain demands fealty from other sufferers to ensure cohesion…in regarding pain’s purpose.” There’s a comfort in considering trauma and pain to be important precursors to meaning and growth. How else would you get through it? Positing that there might not be meaningful lessons for you in it, or forgiveness, or redemption, or those other things we’re taught lie on the other side of pain, does not mean that you cannot engage with it meaningfully or create something out of it. 

The Souvenir was very well received, but when I think of the criticism I’ve read—that the film is withholding and flat—I read it as a desire for the film to possess clearer movements from pain to understanding or growth. I think a lesser movie would have forced Anthony and Julie into tortured justifications for their actions, or their relationship, instead of just letting it unfold. Probably because I’ve spent so much time reflecting on what it meant in my own life, I do find something liberating about the way the film seems to be saying: there’s no moral in this, I’m just showing you what happened. You get a sense—from the meticulous reconstruction of Hogg’s own 1980s apartment, the use of her own film footage, photographs, and letters, and the lack of a script—that Hogg decided to recreate the conditions of her own life and then let her actors loose inside those bounds to film the result.

It is hard for me to separate out what happens within the film and the making of the film itself. Because conversations about this movie have been so grounded in Hoggs’ own life, it creates a doubling effect. There’s both what happens in the movie, which follows a young film student trying to figure out what to say and how to say it, and then the film itself, created by a director whose life inspired much of the movie’s plot. It’s as if you’re being presented with the question and the answer simultaneously. These questions about art, and what it means, and how one “becomes” an artist, are not unrelated to the central relationship. It’s clear that Julie is drawn to Anthony because he challenges her artistically, pushes her, and makes her question her own assumptions. 

It would be easy to read Anthony as a caricature of The Male Artist or (as my sister and I sometimes refer to it) “The Art Boyfriend.” This figure is easy to mock: a man whose unshakeable belief in his own artistic visions and understanding of the world make him impossible to be around. Anthony certainly possesses pretensions and affectations, but—while the film doesn’t hesitate to show the ways Julie is talked down to and belittled by men—I do think Anthony takes her seriously. He often challenges her, but it doesn’t come across as condescending, though I might not be an impartial viewer. I recognize something in Julie’s attraction to Anthony, which is the feeling that the best and most thrilling kind of love is the kind that teaches you something. Much has been written about how this desire can be twisted and exploited, and should therefore not be trusted, especially when you’re a young woman surrounded by older men. All true. But I sometimes think questioning this impulse overlooks a simple fact about human nature: that many of us just want a love that is good for the mind.

Joanna Hogg has been incredibly generous in her interviews. In a discussion with Rebecca Mead, which ran in The New Yorker, Hogg explains why she didn’t leave the man who inspired Anthony’s character after he robbed her, saying, The show had to go on, and there was so much in the show—so much dreaming, all the ideas. It was creating a piece of work.” I think it can be easy to view every piece of art, TV, or film as if it’s a morality play; a fictional character making a bad choice is justifying that bad choice, and risks the audience learning the wrong lesson about how to live. I’m surprised that I haven’t seen much direct criticism of Julie when the film is discussed and wonder if the memoir aspect of the film has inoculated Hogg against criticisms of romanticizing (or at least not making some clearly unambiguous statement against) toxic relationship dynamics. Part of this is because the movie, and the actors in it, are so good. But I wonder how much of it is that doubling again: we know Julie survives and is productive. She becomes the famous director she wanted to become.

“So much dreaming, all the ideas.” I think about that quote a lot. Anthony is manipulative, a liar. He treats Julie carelessly; he’s outright cruel. But Julie isn’t entirely without agency, she isn’t flattened into a naive victim, and Anthony isn’t a villainous addict. The Souvenir is the first and only acting experience Honor Swinton Byrne has ever had, which is shocking when you see how good she is as Julie. You can see it in her face when they talk to each other: the dreaming, the ideas, the excitement of it all. As the viewer, I don’t want them to be together, but the love and everything else that binds them is clear. It’s not about whether the relationship is good or bad. I just understand it, that’s all.

Five minutes before The Souvenir ends, Anthony dies off-screen of a drug overdose in a museum bathroom. Julie’s mother is the one who answers the phone and delivers the news to Julie. Julie doesn’t speak again for the rest of the film.

In one scene halfway through, Richard Ayoade appears as Patrick, an old friend of Anthony’s, who lectures Julie on art and film. He paraphrases Tolstoy’s What Is Art?, telling her “You just have a feeling and by meaning of external signs you communicate it to someone else.” Hogg has stated that the character of Patrick is meant to be a parody of all of the male artists that have spoken down to her throughout her life, so I’m not sure what, if any feelings, Hogg has regarding this definition, but I did look up the full quote, which reads, “Art is a human activity consisting in this, that one man consciously, by means of certain external signs, hands on to others feelings he has lived through, and that other people are infected by these feelings and also experience them.”

I return often to The Souvenir because what happened inside it happened to me, too. Its gift is that it hands those feelings back to me in a pure and unencumbered way. Because I write, I wonder sometimes how and if I will ever write about it. But there’s no meaning for me in it. It didn’t teach me anything about myself or about life. I sometimes try to go back there, in my memories, to that place where meaning should now be, but there’s just a void. 

I have said the plot of The Souvenir mirrors many of the things I experienced in my own relationship, but the narratives diverge in one important way. When I told him to get out, he didn’t come back like Anthony does. When he reached out to me a month before he died, I refused to talk to him. That is what I can’t forgive myself for: that at the end he held his hand out to me and I didn’t take it. I’ve come to realize that trying to forgive myself for it, or even trying to decide whether it’s something that needs to be forgiven, is not as useful as just accepting the way it feels. 

The dead have such power over the living, but the living also have power over the dead. In her interview with Rebecca Mead, Joanna Hogg said, “I see the film that I have made—the film itself has become the souvenir to him. It is almost like I am giving something back to him.”

The movie ends on a soundstage, with Julie filming an actor reciting Christina Rosetti’s poem, “When I am dead, my dearest” though the actor reads the opening lines as “When I am dead, my darling / Sing no sad songs for me.” Years before, I had done a close reading of this poem for an undergraduate poetry class. I somehow managed to write five pages on the ambiguity of the line break in the second stanza, which reads, “I will not hear the nightingale/sing on, as if in pain.” I focused on the command hidden in the middle of the poem by that hard enjambment: “sing on, as if in pain.” 

After my boyfriend died, I became obsessed with the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, particularly the ways it had been adapted and reimagined in contemporary poems and books and film. Most of what I read or saw tried to provide Eurydice, consigned forever to the role of silent shade, with some agency. Perhaps she had chosen death herself, calling out to Orpheus on purpose because she did not wish to return to life with him. Perhaps Orpheus had turned to her with the full knowledge that he was condemning her.

I hated all these adaptations; I even ranked them in a notebook from most to least offensive. I wrote “GRIEF IS THE POINT” next to one entry. I couldn’t understand how so many people could misread what I took as the clear moral heart of the story: that love is not powerful, it will not conquer death; that the universe is ruled by cruel and arbitrary rules, and that we are impotent to save the people we love. No one who loved someone who died could ever get it so wrong; that’s what I thought.

I think another reason Orpheus has fallen out of favor is that he’s an artist. I do think many people, even artists themselves, carry within them the silent fear or belief that art is indulgent, and so is grief. It’s so easy to feel contempt for Orpheus, who survives while Eurydice dies, fails to rescue her, and then spends the rest of his life lamenting about it in poetry and song.

“Sing on, as if in pain.” It’s what Orpheus does, when he returns from the underworld, alone. He sings. According to myth, the songs are so beautiful and full of grief, the trees around him bow their heads. 

What can art do? Art remembers. It cannot call back the dead, but it can summon a shade. Even though you’re not allowed to bring them over the threshold into life, you can get close. You can walk with them again.