**** (R, 1:59)
“The Souvenir” is one of my favorite movies of the year so far. It’s the kind of film that feels like a private discovery, an experience you want to protect.
Joanna Hogg wrote and directed her tale of amour fou and artistic aspiration in early ’80s London with a very specific manner, mood and subject, so that “The Souvenir” feels like a whispered confidence, an intimate disclosure.
Watching the oblique scenes unfold, at first mysteriously and then with ever greater force and clarity, you might believe yourself more of an eavesdropper than a confidant, as if you were sitting at the next table at the ridiculously fancy tearoom where Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne) and Anthony (Tom Burke) have come on a date.
Are we sure they’re dating? (Julie’s mother, played by Byrne’s real-life mother, Tilda Swinton, persists in supposing otherwise.) What exactly is their deal?
Julie’s is that she’s a film student, trying to put together an ambitious, somewhat vague-sounding thesis. We surmise that Anthony is at least a few years older than Julie — and also different from the relaxed, racially and sexually diverse group of friends and schoolmates who gather at her apartment to drink, smoke and listen to records.
Anthony seems, at least at first glance, to be from what the British would call a rather posh background. His ironical, world-weary way of talking and his chalk-striped suits and monogrammed slippers suggest a privileged upbringing.
Julie, by contrast, puts out a decidedly middle- class vibe, including the way she self-consciously checks her own privilege in conversations with her professors.
These first impressions are soon revealed to be completely backward. Anthony’s father (James Dodds) is a former shipyard worker and an art school graduate who lives with the rest of the family in cozy, rural Bohemian dishevelment. Julie’s parents, meanwhile (the marvelous James Spencer Ashworth plays her father), reek of old, landed money.
Anthony claims to work for the Foreign Office. A note of skepticism is in order for the simple reason that, as Julie slowly discovers, he has a habit of lying about nearly everything.
It’s not his only habit, yet now, like Julie, I’m inclined to make excuses. Not to deny or minimize the increasingly obvious fact of Anthony’s drug use — as Julie does for as long as she can — but to dispel certain false impressions that the mention of it might leave behind.
THERE IS a way of describing “The Souvenir” at the level of plot that makes it sound interesting and absorbing but also conventional: another chronicle of addiction and codependency, another cautionary fable of a smart woman making a foolish choice, another period drama celebrating a wilder time.
It sort of is all of that, but it is also emphatically not that at all. The title refers to a small, exquisite painting by 18th-century French artist Jean-Honore Fragonard that Anthony and Julie behold on one of their maybe- dates. It depicts a young woman, sharply scrutinized by her pet dog, carving letters into the trunk of a tree.
“She’s very much in love,” Anthony says with suave certainty, and perhaps he’s right.
But there’s a lot more going on in the picture — and in the moving picture that shares its name — than that simple declaration would suggest. The woman is making a mark and putting down a marker, declaring her own presence with a mixture of shame and audacity, impulsiveness and deliberation.
Julie does love Anthony, of course, and she sacrifices a great deal for him without quite realizing what she’s doing.
Over the span of the film — it’s hard to know exactly how much time is passing, which is of course exactly how the passage of time can feel — her friends slip away, and the work that had seemed so urgent feels a bit more remote. The interplay of forces in Julie’s life is subtle, as is the balance, in her own temperament, between decisiveness and passivity.
Byrne is a revelation, portraying Julie as an embodiment of the awkwardness and heedless grace of young adulthood, almost without precedent in the movies. She’s a half-formed creature who we’re watching take shape, partly through the development of her own nature and partly under the influence of external forces.
With her soft features and hesitant diction, Byrne gives Julie’s confusion a sensual, almost metaphysical, intensity. For the duration of “The Souvenir,” nothing in the world is more important than what will happen to her.
Or, to adjust the grammar a bit, what will turn out to have happened. This movie is a memory piece, after all (with a sequel in the works), set at a time of IRA bombings and ascendant Thatcherism. It’s also a coming-of- age story, implying the perspective of maturity.
The film shrouds the action in a delicate caul of nostalgia, communicating an ache that Julie can’t yet feel but that we can see forming inside her.
This is one of the saddest movies you can imagine, and it’s an absolute joy to watch.