English director Joanna Hogg presents the pain of a young woman filmmaker’s destructive relationship with an addict in The Souvenir, while Pamela B. Green’s documentary Be Natural tells the fascinating story of one of cinema’s greatest pioneers, Alice Guy-Blaché.
A feminist film, in my view, is a film that completely foregrounds the experience of women. This is the case with an extraordinary new picture from English writer-director Joanna Hogg called The Souvenir.
Honor Swinton Byrne plays Julie, a London film student who wants to make her first feature about a boy in a working class town suffering economic hardship. When asked by potential backers why she wants to make a movie so apart from her experience, she explains that she doesn’t want to stay inside the bubble of her own privilege. She is from a well-off family, and this seems a handicap among her somewhat bohemian fellow students.
Hogg composes her story out of the small incidents that make up our lives: conversations, daily tasks, and just the ordinary interchanges that make up a day—rather than big dramatic events. A few clues early on tell us that we’re in the past: typewriters, vinyl records, clothing, cars. The news includes events, such as IRA bombings, that put us in the 1980s. But besides such details, there’s really nothing to disturb our sense of the ordinary and the universal. Life is not like a play or a book. Other than birth or death, there are no tidy beginnings and endings in the stream of experience, and this sense of the present is what Hogg so carefully and effectively maintains.
Julie strikes up a friendship with a man, a few years older, named Anthony and played by Tom Burke. He’s decidedly upper class, works at the foreign office, and displays a sharply intellectual viewpoint on things. They end up in a relationship, a very passionate one, and one of the important things he does for Julie is express a strong and considered belief in her talent, not by flattering her but by presenting her with honest and searching questions, in other words by taking her seriously as a person and a thinker. At the same time, however, his personality and his intellect are so strong, so dominant, that it tends to undermine her, requiring more of her energy and attention than is healthy for her own growth as an artist.
Then, still early on in the film, Julie discovers by chance from a mutual acquaintance that Anthony is a regular heroin user. She was so naïve, at least in some respects, that she had failed to pick up on this herself. The film becomes a moving portrait of a destructive relationship, and a young woman’s struggle to cope with it, along with how it affects her as an artist. Anthony is not a bad guy. It’s not that kind of a film. Hogg wants to show how a relationship of genuine love for a complex man can nevertheless be stifling for a young woman trying to find her own way.
Honor Swinton Byrne is remarkably natural and assured in her first big part. Her real life mother, Tilda Swinton, plays her mother in the film, who doesn’t quite understand her daughter, but is totally supportive of her. And Tom Burke is outstanding as Anthony. When important things do happen in this film, they have the impact of actual turning points in real life, because Joanna Hogg’s style, a steady commitment to the subjective point of view of her main character, has deftly held our attention through all the small moments. The Souvenir is a breakthrough picture for her, and for those of us who yearn for daring and innovative feminist filmmaking.
And speaking of women filmmakers, a new documentary, Be Natural: the Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché, reveals the fascinating tale of a woman of great importance in the history of cinema. Alice Guy was the world’s first woman director. She made all the early films of the Gaumont Studio in France, and later made movies in the United States under her married name of Alice Guy-Blaché. This was the founding era, the time of pioneers—from 1896 to 1919, she produced and directed over a thousand films, and the clips we are shown demonstrate her daring and mastery. It’s also an exciting detective story, in which the director, Pamela B. Green, tells of her long quest to unearth all the facts about this founding mother of film, and why Guy-Blaché was practically erased from film history for so long. The title, Be Natural, was the motto that she put in her studio for all the actors in her films. The picture is narrated by Jodie Foster, and for a film lover like me, it’s a dream come true.