By Cynthia Cruz
December 6, 2019
“The disappearance of that essential being continues to deprive me of what is most worthwhile in me; I live it as a wound…” –Julia Kristeva, Black Sun
The Souvenir (2019) opens with a wound: black and white archival footage of Sunderland, the working class shipping and mining town on the northeastern coast of England, and the origin of Anthony, the film’s male protagonist. It tells the story of Julie, a privileged young film student living in her family’s apartment in the posh Knightsbridge neighborhood of London, and her developing relationship with Anthony, an older, Foreign Offices worker with a nebulous background. The 2019 film is a semi-autobiographical project by filmmaker Joanna Hogg, with the character of Julie as Hogg’s stand-in, played by Honor Swinton-Byrne (the daughter of actress Tilda Swinton, who also appears). Julie comes from old money, doesn’t have a job, and spends her free time shopping and dining at the luxury department store Harrods, as she attends film school.
Her privilege, though never spoken of outright, is referred to symbolically. For example, in a scene where the two are in her bed, Anthony playfully tells Julie she’s taking up too much space, complaining that she has an extra foot while he has none. “I wasn’t trying to cross any kind of threshold,” she says, to which he replies, “You’ve got a foot on that side, and I literally am on a ledge. I’ve got nowhere left to go. You’ve got a foot. I’ve got nothing.” Though the context is space in their shared bed (her bed, as he has nowhere to live), the class undertones become quite apparent: she was born into privilege and, thus, will always have a “foot” ahead of him. In sharp contrast, Anthony has nowhere to go both literally (he is essentially homeless) and metaphorically (he is working class but trapped in the world of the upper class).
Anthony is aware of Julie’s class but Julie remains oblivious of any social class other than her own. Explaining her film project, she notes that her main character, Tony, “is being forced to be raised to come to terms with incredible struggles his family is going through…being forced to come to terms with something so harsh for someone so young.” The vague terms Julie uses to describe Tony belie the fact that she not only has no experience with this type of suffering, but also that she has spent no time or effort learning about the lives of the people she wishes to portray. Her ignorance regarding the actual lives of the people she is depicting becomes glaringly obvious. This parallels her relationship with Anthony, with whom she spends her time but knows nothing about. She also shows no interest in learning about him.
The film never explicitly shows Anthony’s connection with the place that formed him, just as we never truly see Anthony. Instead, we are privy to the blurred edges of a man in the final stages of self-erasure. After the opening footage, The Souvenir cuts to a party in Julie’s apartment, where she first meets Anthony. The introduction is one-sided: though he’s introduced, we don’t see him in the frame. We hear only a young woman’s voice saying to Julie, “This is Anthony, my lodger.” The introduction of Anthony as a “lodger” defines his working class standing to both Julie and to the viewer (though he is, or claims he is, a diplomat and was schooled at a private, elite college). As the party scene continues, the camera shows only the back of Anthony’s head as he is speaking, not his face. The next time we see Anthony, we see, again, only the back of his head as the two dine at Harrods and Julie tells him about her film. He remains anonymous, invisible, which is to say he is of the working class, just one of the many. How Hogg introduces Anthony stands in stark contrast to the way she introduces Julie and her friends. Though she is merely a student, Julie is described repeatedly as a “film student” or a “filmmaker.” With Julie and her friends the camera is intimate, hovering near their faces and bodies. It is as if we are present with them, laughing and drinking beer on Julie’s soft couch. In this way we, the viewers, become complicit in the upper class gaze of the film.
The “souvenir” of the film is most obviously Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s 1778 painting of the same name; a painting Anthony takes Julie to see hanging in London’s Wallace Collection. The canvas portrays a young woman carving the initials of her lover in a tree. In the painting, on the ground near her feet, is a letter from her lover. Anthony similarly sends letters to Julie, small bundles of paper that appear mysteriously in her mail slot. In the film though, what is discarded and forgotten are Anthony’s working class origins. In the place of what he has abandoned is a wound. In Fragonard’s painting, the girl carves a wound into the tree in an act of remembrance. But Anthony has done the opposite: he has fled his past, attempting to hide all evidence of it. And yet, as the film unfolds, it becomes clear his wound will never heal. Instead it will rot, and eventually subsume him.
The viewer meets Anthony only after his erasure of his origins. Though his reasons for doing this are never remarked upon, it is clear why he has done what he has: only by cutting away his working class origins can Anthony have a life of privilege. In Julie’s existence, the life he desires is reflected back to him. Hogg’s use of mirrors and her frequent reliance on split scenes underscore this reflection. The Souvenir’s scenes often appear hazy, as if beneath a sheath, and are stacked back to back, separated by punctuating cuts that leave out huge swaths of information. This construction mimics memory—the way memory is recorded in our minds as small distinct scenes, without connectors between them. At the same time, the huge swaths of experience cut out of the film allude to the blacking out of memory inherent in trauma. In this case, the trauma of Anthony’s having cut his working class origins from his own history and, presumably, from the film of his own memory.
The term “wound” is never used in the film, but both Anthony and Julie refer to “the vile beast.” In a letter Anthony writes to Julie, he observes, “The vile beast knows itself. And miserable he is with it. It is you who has power over the beast.” What is this vile beast? A lazy reading would extrapolate the “beast” as his working class origins, the feral creature within him causing endless turmoil. Instead, the “vile beast” might be read not as his origins but, rather, his submersion of his origins and the wound, or “vile beast,” resulting from this action. Illness looms large in the film. Anthony is obviously ill: with melancholia, the result of his turning away from his origins. This damage, the “vile beast,” manifests in his emptiness, his lack of dimension and, of course, his heroin use.
In a sense, then, Anthony is the wound. He has digested himself, his origins, and who he was and what formed him, so that in the end, all that is left is a gaping laceration. When he ransacks Julie’s apartment to pay for their trip to Venice (which he cannot afford), he tells her the apartment has been robbed. As she reacts to this, he leaves the room, tells her he is calling the police, and then slams the phone receiver in anguish. When Julie runs to him, he shows her his “wound,” the abrasion he has caused himself by slamming down the phone (and not calling the police). His physical wound speaks on his behalf; it takes the place of language. And though in this scene Julie is “wounded” (he has robbed her), he injures himself, making the wound manifest.
One often questions whether Anthony is cognizant of what he is saying. His language diminishment appears not to be the result of drug use but rather of his having become a mere shell of who he once was. After their return from Venice, when the two are sitting face to face in Julie’s apartment, she confronts him regarding his theft of her apartment and he replies, “I appreciate there are things about me that you find unacceptable. There are things about you I find unacceptable.” He continues, “I do what I do so you can have the life you’re having. Sleep safe at night.” There is an obvious leap here, between his first and second sentences. The first is a hazy response to her clear accusation. But the second, though ostensibly referring to his work with the Foreign Office, also speaks to his existence as a working class person. The working class and poor must exist in order for families like Julie’s to enjoy their privileges. It is unclear whether Anthony is aware of the implications of what he is suggesting: his unconscious is speaking through him.
And it is this, the unconscious and the wound as unconscious, that in the end will speak. After he disappears without explanation, Julie eventually meets Anthony one last time for a meal at Harrods. She behaves as she always does—coy, flirtatious. But he appears desperate, telling her he has met with someone to speak of finances, of “frugality.” He has come up against a threshold: he can either face the truth of the person he has erased and live accordingly, with all the restrictions this entails, or he can continue his masquerade. To this Julie responds with a question: “Investments?” There appears to be a space between Anthony’s words and Julie’s, as though content has been omitted from the film. “Frugality” and “investments,” are leagues apart. One suggests necessity and the other, choice. Julie is unaware of the limitations Anthony is alluding to due to her class privilege. But rather than ask, she behaves as she always does, asserting her own world, the only world she can see, upon his. Following this, Julie tells him, “I always use the wrong fork on purpose,” in yet another reference to choice and privilege. Anthony responds, “Both of mine are the same size.” He is either unaware of the mannerisms inherent to the privileged class or he was not given the same utensils as she was (another allusion to her entitlement, akin to the bed scene in which he points out her having “an extra foot,” while he has none). Whichever the scenario, Anthony’s choices are limited in a way Julie’s are not. He begins sobbing at the table, the first and only instance of the manifestation of his true self. In response, Julie sits quietly across from him. Her silence demonstrates her inability to understand or have empathy for the struggles of those from outside her class.
When the working class abandons their origins, they abandon who they are, resulting only in a hollow shell of self. In a scene where Julie is working on a statement for her film, she tells Anthony she wants to be sincere in her presentation. In response, Anthony says, “We can all be sincere, we can all be authentic, but what’s it all for?” As he does throughout the film, Anthony functions on two levels. He questions Julie’s intense desire to be genuine, while also speaking to the larger existential quandary of authenticity and class. Julie can choose to be more or less sincere but for Anthony sincerity and authenticity would mean embracing his working class origins and no longer attempting to pass as affluent. He would need to return to the social and economic confines of a working class existence.
In a scene when Julie is talking about the feature film she is working on, she explains her protagonist “Tony” to Anthony. Tony is a sixteen year old who has lived in Sunderland his entire life. He is insecure and shy, and has a constant fear of his mother’s dying. Implied in the mother’s death is a sense of decay or ruin. When Anthony asks, she tells him that she first learned of Sunderland through “an installation by some artists I knew,” alluding to questions of cultural appropriation and authorship. “Then you got interested in the rot?” he asks, to which she replies, “Yes.” This “rot,” is connected to the wound, Anthony’s repression of his working class origins, which nonetheless “rots” through.
The wound absorbs Anthony, destroying and devouring him. He dies at the end, once again outside the frame of the film, of a heroin overdose. We only learn he has died when Julie’s mother receives a phone call in the middle of the night, then comes down the stairs and tells Julie, “the worst.” Anthony’s death, like his past and, indeed, his very existence, is oblique—a negation, an allusion. The facts of it, like the facts of his origins, are represented as sordid, dirty, beyond comprehension and, as such, occur outside the film’s upper class vernacular. In the end, the working class and working poor are marginalized in The Souvenir, as they are in life.
Cynthia Cruz is the author of five collections of poems. Her sixth collection of poems, Guidebooks For The Dead, is forthcoming in 2020. Her first collection of essays, Disquieting: Essays on Silence, was published April of 2019. Cruz teaches at Sarah Lawrence College and Columbia University.