Joanna Hogg on The Souvenir: six visual influences

As one of the best British films of 2019 arrives in UK cinemas, we sat down with filmmaker Joanna Hogg to discuss some of her key visual references for The Souvenir.

Lou Thomas

The Souvenir (2019)

The Souvenir (2019)

Joanna Hogg’s fourth feature as writer-director, The Souvenir, is a subtle, poignant tale about an affluent student filmmaker in 1980s London who falls in love with a mysterious man. He introduces her to Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s eponymous 18th-century painting and soon moves into her tasteful Knightsbridge flat, only to become an elusive presence, except when he is asking her for money.

In her first lead role as filmmaker Julie, Honor Swinton Byrne (daughter of Tilda Swinton and an old friend of Hogg) is a calm and considered screen presence opposite the secretive and brooding Anthony (Tom Burke). The film’s emotionally devastating narrative, David Raedeker’s evocative cinematography and a pair of perfectly poised lead performances ensure that The Souvenir is among the finest British films of the year.

Hogg, whose previous films Unrelated (2007), Archipelago (2010) and Exhibition (2013) all met with critical acclaim, took a break from editing The Souvenir: Part II to discuss the visual influences on its first instalment. Hogg and her team finished shooting Part II in July and look to release it in 2020.

During our conversation, Hogg, a cheery and enthusiastic interviewee, also revealed that she enjoys the Transformer films and Guillermo del Toro’s robot/monster blockbuster Pacific Rim (2013). She explains: “I like the scale and the creativity that goes into films like that. I’m in awe. I don’t think I could do it myself. I’d like to think I could, but I don’t know. Incredible.”

The Souvenir (c. 1775)

Artist Jean-Honoré Fragonard

The Souvenir (c. 1775)

Joanna Hogg: It was probably one of the starting points because I was introduced to the painting when I was in this relationship that I depict in the film. I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s autobiographical, but it’s got a lot of elements of my own life at that time. Or what I can remember, with my faulty memory.

I usually find titles for my films very late on, once I’ve finished editing. This was a different experience because I always knew that that painting would form an important part of the story. It did in my own story, in that I was introduced to that painting with this boyfriend I was going out with at the time. And that I was also left the postcard as a souvenir after his death. But I feel that the idea of the painting has got a lot of resonances within the story that go beyond my own experience. The very film – or part one – is a souvenir in a sense of this particular experience I had in my 20s. But then in part two, and I don’t want to give away too much of that, Julie creates her own souvenir within the story.

For me personally, it was about unravelling its meaning in a way, but its meaning within this relationship that I had and the significance for the boyfriend. It still remains to be seen. I can’t inquire now, unfortunately. But I’d be curious to know what his particular love of this painting meant. At the time, in your early 20s, you don’t always ask the right questions.

The Band Wagon (1953)

Director Vincente Minnelli

The Band Wagon (1953)

JH: I had grown up being very fond of Hollywood musicals. I had always been interested in a particular period of Hollywood cinema. I was very fond of The Band Wagon, although I was much more of a Gene Kelly fan than I was a Fred Astaire fan. The Band Wagon, particularly the ‘Girl Hunt Ballet’ within the film was very inspirational, particularly when I got to make my graduation film at film school.

It was something about the ‘Girl Hunt Ballet’ being a film within a film, and being done in such a stylised way. Obviously the choreography and the dance is wonderful. I didn’t try and emulate any of the dance, that wasn’t possible. But in terms of a particular stylised, painterly approach, that was something I really loved at that time.

Making both parts of The Souvenir has reignited an interest in creating my own world within a studio. Not just going out and shooting on location, but actually creating everything, the furniture and the backgrounds but doing it in a non-realistic way. When I started to look at films I was interested in at that time in the early 80s, it was like a light switch coming on again. It got me in touch again with what interests me about cinema.

Radio On (1979)

Director Chris Petit

Radio On (1979)

JH: The first time I saw it I was so struck by it. It was at a time when I was very interested in the north-east of England. Like Julie in The Souvenir, I wanted to make a film set in this industrial part of the UK and I wanted to shoot in black and white. I can’t remember whether I wanted to shoot my film in black and white because I’d just seen Radio On or had already thought that. But I was really struck by the beautiful black-and-white cinematography of that film. And I was really into Kraftwerk [who feature on the soundtrack] at that time.

Ticket of No Return (1979)

Director Ulrike Ottinger

Ticket of No Return (1979)

JH: I haven’t seen it since then, I don’t think. I don’t know if you can see parts of it or all of it on the internet, but I really despise watching a film on YouTube where the quality is so diminished. So I’d love to see it on the big screen again because I can just remember fragments of it. But again, that was obviously incredibly different, polar opposite in a way to Radio On, in terms of its style. But equally exciting to me as a 19-year-old, I think I was 19 when that came out in ’79.

I was interested in fashion at the time and that went into my graduation film at film school. I remember incredible costumes. But it’s also a story about a woman who’s an alcoholic. I think the themes of it interested me. Again, very stylised and very much into creating her own world, so I think that excited me: a filmmaker with a very individual approach and quite an intellectual approach as well. 

I don’t know what I’d think of it if I saw it now. It’s like visiting a place that you love some years later. It can be disappointing. What I was struck by in revisiting some of the films that I loved and discovered in my 20s is that actually, I did see them almost with my twentysomething-year-old eyes. I found them exciting again and inspiring.

All That Jazz (1979)

Director Bob Fosse

All That Jazz (1979)

JH: It’s interesting because I mentioned Ticket of No Return being about an alcoholic. And All That Jazz is about someone who lives life to the full. Drinks a lot and smokes a lot. I don’t know whether this [has any significance], somebody confronting who they are through their vices. It also connects with New York, New York (1977) – all these films were made around the same point in time. So there there was something about all three of those films inspiring me.

With All That Jazz, I have rewatched it since. I still feel as strongly about it as I did when I first saw it. I think it’s an extraordinary film. It’s so complex and got so many layers, but can also be seen as this musical, so it’s very satisfying in a lot of different ways. I also feel that about New York, New York. That’s a film I can revisit again and again.

BFI: You mention New York, New York. You’ve recorded podcasts with Martin Scorsese and he executive-produced The Souvenir. Can you tell me about your relationship with him?

JH: It’s been a gradual thing, getting to know him. I’d shown him a cut of Exhibition [Hogg’s 2013 film] and he’d been a little bit involved in that. Then before I decided what the next film was going to be, I thought I’d bounce some ideas off him because there’s always that period where between films, where there are various possibilities. I’m not one of these filmmakers who has a film ready to go when I finish one. There’s always a dip or a moment. It’s quite a pleasurable moment, in a way, where there are so many possibilities. And you’re just working out what that film is I want to make that’s going to consume me for the next few years.

In that time I started to think about the story for The Souvenir I was already getting to know Scorsese. And it’s a film about cinema on many levels, so I asked him to come on board as an executive producer, really as an excuse to have more conversations with him about filmmaking. He’s got such a phenomenal memory for everything. If I mention a particular idea or something I want to explore, then he’ll have so many different reference points for that. And that’s so exciting.

Heimat (1984-2013)

Director Edgar Reitz

Heimat: A Chronicle of Germany (1984)

JH: A lot of the Heimat series is about creativity, particularly the second part, where there’s a particular character who’s a filmmaker. I was quite interested in looking again at that. Its approach to filmmaking within a story jumps out.

I’m not one of these people who’s endlessly watching box sets. It’s partly a time thing and there are so many now. I feel I guard my time quite carefully. And as far as television or cinema is concerned I guess I’ve got a highly addictive personality. So I’ll just get lost in 50 hours of something and probably enjoy it. But then, I might come out the other side and wonder, what was I doing?

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