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Monday, September 28, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Souvenir’ is an acquired cinematic taste

Dan Webster

One of the movies that we reviewed on "Movies 101" is a confounding example of alternative cinema titled "The Souvenir." What follows is the attempt that I made to make some sense of it for Spokane Public Radio:

Judging art is an individual exercise. After all, our reactions to pretty much anything, from opera to football games to ice cream, depend primarily on the attitudes – tempered by ever-developing degrees of knowledge and overall life experience – that shape our personal tastes.

And, yes, crafting the best ice cream – specifically gelato – indeed is an art.

I’m not saying that universal standards don’t exist. Michelangelo’s David is so jaw-droppingly impressive that no reasonable person could deny its genius. On the other hand, debates over the quality of other artworks are ongoing: People have gotten into fistfights over disagreements about Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings.

And the same is even more pronounced with cinema, that great popular art form. Some of us consider “Citizen Kane” the greatest film ever made. Others would rather sit through an Adam Sandler marathon twice than be forced to endure the first five minutes of Welles’ masterpiece.

I say all that as a way of leading up to a discussion of “The Souvenir,” a film by British filmmaker Joanna Hogg that premiered in January at the Sundance Film Festival and is available on demand through your favorite streaming service  (Amazon Prime, for example).

Let me add here, too, that “The Souvenir” is getting reviews that border on the absurd. It carries a 90 percent approval on Rotten Tomatoes, the aggregate site that, in this instance, compiled the opinions of 115 film critics from across the country.

So imagine my discomfort after I finished watching the film when I felt curiously perplexed. Instead of finding “The Souvenir” to be “rich and quiet and sneakily affecting” – as one critic put it – I thought the film superficial, banal and overtly pretentious.

What kind of Kool-Aid, I thought, is everyone drinking?

“The Souvenir” – which takes its title from a late 18th-century painting by the French artist Jean-Honoré Fragonard – tells the story of a young film student named Julie (played by Honor Swinton Byrne, daughter of actress Tilda Swinton).

Immersed in a student-film project, the fever-dream visions of which become a clumsily diverting device that Hogg returns to repeatedly, Julie falls into an at-first casual relationship with the older Anthony (played by Tom Burke). Pretty soon, Anthony – by dint of some quality of attraction that I failed to recognize – enchants Julie. And the two embark on a love affair that feels as unlikely as it is obligatorily doomed.

It’s not just that Anthony is already married, not just that he steals from Julie, not just that he lies to her and is always borrowing money. It’s that he’s overbearing and self-absorbed. And not particularly attractive. Oh, and he’s a heroin addict to boot.

In other words, Hogg’s whole movie is based on a weak premise. And instead of giving us any reason to accept that premise – say, a back story outlining why Julie is so acceptingly naïve – she merely indulges in a kind of artistic fancy that might make even Jackson Pollock smirk.

Of course, you may feel differently. Certainly the majority of critics do. No problem. Just don’t try to argue with me about ice cream.

Especially about gelato.

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