Programme notes: The Souvenir

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The Souvenir

Spoiler warning: these notes are best read after viewing the film. They contain discussion of plot and character details.

In Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s painting ‘The Souvenir’, a young woman carves something into a tree trunk. Wearing a pink satin gown, she has a letter at her feet and a dog by her side. According to the Rococo artist, the young woman’s name is Julie and she is carving the initials of her lover into the tree. This painting plays a pivotal role in Joanna Hogg’s new film The Souvenir (named for the painting, and the film’s lead character named after the woman depicted), which is based on the arthouse writer/director’s own experiences as an aspiring filmmaker and photographer in 1970s and 80s. Like in the film, Hogg was shown the painting by a man with whom she had a turbulent relationship, and like in the film, this relationship was tragically fraught, leaving an eternal mark on Hogg. In interviews, Hogg has stated that she began taking notes about the project after that day, although it was decades later that the project would see the light of day.

The film looks at a life of privilege, and Joanna Hogg has long had an interest in the upper classes; her previous works Unrelated, Archipelago, and Exhibition are all stately affairs that put the audience at the same distance as its characters are from their lives.

The filmmaker used these films to explore families, or the lack of, reflecting on the culture she observes day to day. The quiet connections, or disconnection, that her characters have with their surroundings come from the way she films – often keeping her cast on sets for the duration of filming. For The Souvenir, she recreated the studio flat in a hangar near Norfolk. Hogg’s one-time muse, Tom Hiddleston, spoke about this approach from when he worked on a previous film of hers, stating ‘If you’re an actor and your character decides to put the kettle on, if it’s the same kettle you’ve been using every morning for the last six weeks, there’s something about the way you’ll do it which will be very natural… The actors become part of the fabric of the scene, because they’re living it all the time’.[1]

During her early twenties, Hogg was a photography assistant and aspiring filmmaker. She made experimental films after borrowing a super-8 film camera from her mentor Derek Jarman. Hogg later described how she found photography ‘limiting to an extent because I wanted to tell stories’.[2]

After enrolling in film school, her graduation film, Caprice, starred a then unknown Tilda Swinton, who was her former classmate from boarding school. Swinton and her remained close, and not only does Swinton appear in The Souvenir, but also her daughter Honor Swinton-Byrne plays the lead role. Following Caprice, it was two decades later that Hogg would return to feature filmmaking with Unrelated. In the intervening years, she honed her craft working with music videos and serialised television. It could be this time which allowed Hogg to attune her sense as an observer.

This is a quality she gives Julie from the start of The Souvenir, with the opening party taking place around the lead. Julie views them through a camera, neither intervening nor judging, seemingly happy to observe. However, as the film moves on, and her relationship with Anthony develops and becomes charged, Julie becomes imbued with agency, and is forced not only to become the centre of the story, but also to take action.

 The film plays with Julie’s position in the frame throughout, shifting her to take more space, moving from an observer to the centre of the action, and the most important part of her own story. By the end of the film, she is staring directly into the audience, before leaving through an enormous door, her stark figure standing in the centre silhouetted by the light. The film is also filled with mirrors, as Julie is forced not only to look out and around, but also at her own reflection and subconscious.

The Souvenir Part II is trailed at the end of the film, which will continue Julie’s story into adulthood. Despite the title, and the continuation of characters, Hogg states that ‘It’s another film and it should stand on its own, not just as a two-part thing’.[3] The first part of the story tells a complete tale, a distinct memory from Hogg’s past, and the second part is shaping up to be the same. The concept of a souvenir is something to remember the past by, a nostalgic charm that can bring about heady memories and feelings with them. This is what Hogg has done with these films, created delicate but deliberate souvenirs about what sculpted her as a filmmaker, and which share her love and communication with cinema with them.

Sean Greenhorn

Freelance film writer


If you have watched The Souvenir and want to share your thoughts on the film, we would love to hear from you. Tweet @glasgowfilm or email and tell us what you thought.



[1] Tom Hiddleston, quoted by Rebecca Mead in ‘JOANNA HOGG’S SELF-PORTRAIT OF A LADY’ in The New Yorker, available online at

[2] Joanna Hogg, quoted in The Scotsman ‘Interview: Joanna Hogg is doing something new, interesting and true to what she knows’

[3] Joanna Hogg, quoted by Kate Erbland in Joanna Hogg Teases ‘The Souvenir 2,’ Which Won’t Be Ready for Sundance 2020’, online at

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