Joanna Hoggs Dollhouse – The Green Amsterdammer

Tom Burke as Anthony and Honor Swinton Byrne as Julie in Souvenirs (2019)

Agatha A. Nitecka / A24 / Eye Film Museum

The apartment, in distinguished London’s Knightsbridge area is bright and open. The decor is modest – beautiful and practical. The rooms are cramped and yet the apartment is spacious: it has several floors. Everything is white or bright, and in the mirrored wall that separates the living room from the narrow kitchen, all the white and light, the light that comes in through the window, is doubled once again. Everything has its place: the stereo, the sofa, the round table that people eat at. Everything seems to be put together, very precisely put in place. Even when chaos ensues, there is an element of construction in it in the apartment where the house number extension L so gracefully adorns the front door. If you took a step back, a dollhouse would reveal if its space has been carefully pieced together. But who decorated the house like that?

IN Souvenirs (2019), by British filmmaker Joanna Hogg, Apartment L is where Julie and Anthony first meet. It’s Julie’s apartment, funded by her parents, and it’s her party. She’s young, he’s a little older. She dresses boyishly, wears no make-up. She listens to pop and it new romantics – because it’s the eighties. He just dresses, is learned. He listens to opera. She’s a budding filmmaker, and he has a mysterious job – something for ‘foreign department’† First we see Anthony from behind, in the shadows, in the mirrors on Julie’s living room wall. When they meet for the first time, in a sumptuous rococo-style restaurant, it’s Anthony’s back we see again, in pin-striped suits. We hear his affected mumble. It’s not a movie realistic must exist authentic to be, he tells her. That we do not want to see life portrayed as it is is but as it becomes polite† It is only when he turns to ask for the bill that we see his face for the first time.

At the film academy, Julie is working on a raw-realistic drama set against the backdrop of a mining town. Why make a movie about something so far away, her teachers ask, lighting a cigarette again. Souvenirs is the movie Julie’s teachers wanted her to make. This is the movie Anthony was talking about: one that shows life as it is lived. Joanna Hogg based Souvenirs on her own life, on memories that form as cohesive a past as possible. She created an alter ego, Julie, and in a hangar somewhere outside London, she reconstructed her old Knightsbridge apartment – and turned it into a dollhouse.

Anthony moves in with Julie. When do they fall in love? When do they kiss for the first time? He is one and all red flags and bad vibes, but you understand what she likes about him. He takes her to The Wallace Collection to show her a little oil painting: Souvenirs by Jean-Honoré Fragonard, in which a woman cuts her lover’s initials into a wooden bark. “She looks sad,” Julie assesses. No, says Anthony, she’s determined. On New Yorkers Hogg says of the man who modeled for Anthony: “When I was with him, I did not make films, I myself was in a film – a genre film, a Hitchcock film full of mystery and intrigue.”

“Did you hurt yourself?” Julie asks as she sees the scars on Anthony’s arms. He played astonished: “Yes, I do not know what it is.” The few moments where we see Julie and Anthony up close are when they look at each other. These are the moments where she ugly that see what she really dares to look at. He is so tall that he can hardly keep his eyes open, can hardly keep his face still. She’s naive, but you know that’s exactly what he likes about her. ‘please go’, she begs.

‘The show had to continue’, says Hogg New Yorkers. Before Anthony takes Julie to Venice, he has a suit made for her. They carry a suitcase set, pack a prom dress for her. On the train he sings: ‘How sad can Venice be / when you are alone / How sad can Venice be / when you are alone.’ In a baroque Italian hotel room, Julie is with Anthony, and yet she is alone. She sits next to her suitcase set, in her tailored suit, and cries.

Hogg plays a delicate game – with real and not real, present and memory, inside and out

‘And there was so much in the show’, says Hogg. In Venice, Julie and Anthony enter the theater through thick red curtains, he in a tuxedo, she in a strapless gold dress – as if they were not the audience, but the actors. ‘so many dreams’, says Hogg, ‘all the ideas. It was about creating a piece of work. ‘ Souvenirs is the dream, and all the ideas. It is the initial that a loved one carves in a tree, a love letter, a memory – a souvenir. It reconstructs the past and at the same time examines the reconstruction itself. For how does memory really work? What moments do time survive? Do you still remember your first kiss, or is his face shrouded in shadows? Do you only see his back? A movie is not necessary genuine to be, says Anthony, to truthful to be.

By the exit of Souvenirs we see Julie recording a monologue spoken directly into the camera. While the camera moves slowly towards the actress, with the crew following behind, Hogg’s camera moves towards Julie at the same pace. This is the moment when two realities intersect. That is when we step back and see the construction for what it is. The large doors of the hangar open. Julie steps outside, she leaves the dollhouse. After the credits, a message appears on the screen: ‘The Souvenir: Part II coming soon. ‘

I Souvenirs: Part II (2021) it’s summer. Everything is white and bright. There is the sun, a delicate white flower, the earth beneath your feet. Julie starts a new life without Anthony. Where part one of Souvenirs was a drama, second part is more light-hearted. While part one reconstructs the past, part two is about reconstruction. We see how Julie processes her relationship with Anthony in her graduation film; how she cast an actress like herself, moved her own bed to the stage. She recreates her apartment like a dollhouse, including the ornate L on the front door. In the first part Julie stepped outside, in the second part she brings in the outside world.

Joanna Hogg was 47 when, after a career as a director of music videos and TV series, she made her first feature film. Her oeuvre is small (three films besides) souvenirs) and consists of small films. Small films about small dramas; about how people relate to each other, fit together or on the contrary fall apart. To stay as close to reality as possible, and to use his mini-budgets as efficiently as possible, Hogg developed a unique way of working. She uses a short plot summary rather than a script and runs her scenes in chronological order. She creates circumstances that help her actors put themselves in the place of their characters. She cast Shakespeare actor Tom Burke in the role of the pompous Anthony and the non-professional Honor Swinton Byrne in the role of the naive Julie; the first lent its theatrical bombast to its role and the second lent its openness to hers. ‘It’s completely from within’, Hogg’s production designer told New Yorkers about her method, ‘rather than the outside in.’

It’s very unusual, says Julie’s teacher, to borrow equipment for your movie if you do not already have the budget in order. But – he lights a cigarette – someone who can afford an apartment in Knightsbridge does not have to worry about money. Julie encounters prejudice – about her upper middle class background, about her femininity, about the kind of film she wants to make: modest, modest, subtle. She gets into a fight with her cameraman, who gets frustrated with her loose working method. Hogg shows Julie spreading apologies. She envelops herself in a rumbling silence and throws up with impotence.

Souvenirs: Part II is a modest, modest, subtle film. It is a film that does not open the windows to the world, but examines reality down to the millimeter – in a doll’s home. Is it typically feminine? And Julie, is she a typical woman? Is her cameraman dominant or is she insecure? Hogg shows that it’s all true. That Julie, like the woman in Fragonard’s painting, is both sad and stubborn. That you can also tense your muscles if you are modest. Hogg stages a male student, Patrick, and lets him succumb to his own arrogance. That fuck you Hogg’s part is that she incorporates scenes from Patrick’s spectacle film into her own film, as if to say: I can do it, do something big, flashy ambitious, but I choose not to. Instead, Hogg decorates his dollhouse and asks a question: What does ambition really look like? What does a spectacle film look like? In his dollhouse, Hogg plays a delicate game – with real and not real, present and memory, inside and out. It’s understated, ambitious and utterly spectacular.

Souvenirs: Part II end with a song: Back to life from Soul II Soul (“Back to life / Back to reality”) – but the story is still going on. Once again, two realities intersect, fiction is inseparable from reality. IN Souvenirs Julie looked us straight in the eye, in Part II is it a voice from Hogg declaring that the story is over: “Distress!”

Souvenirs: Part II can be seen from June 30 in Eye in Amsterdam and in several other theaters as part of the program Previously Unreleased. For the apartment there are also views of Souvenirs

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