Edinburgh Film Festival reviews: The Souvenir | Varda by Agnes | What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael

Class privilege and creativity are explored with self-lacerating precision in The Souvenir, Joanna Hogg’s portrait of an unsure-of-herself filmmaker trying to find her voice in early 1980s London. Revolving around the well-heeled Julia (Honor Swinton Byrne) as she becomes involved with a caddish Foreign Office junior (Tom Burke’s Anthony), the film – which has its UK premiere at the festival tonight – is shot through with a sort of queasy, uneasy tension as Anthony’s ability to play on her insecurities starts upsetting her comfortable Knightsbridge existence.

The Souvenir

The Souvenir ****

Varda by Agnes ****

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What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael **

The question Hogg’s fourth feature – after Unrelated, Archipelago and Exhibition – rather brilliantly refuses to resolve is whether her protagonist knowingly lets herself get sucked into Anthony’s increasingly chaotic world out of genuine love or some kind of masochistic desire to explode her bubble-like existence in a way that even the IRA bombing of Harrods right on her doorstep doesn’t seem to manage. We already know, for instance, that Julie is struggling to explain her vision for a Sunderland-set film about working class woe (a vision that gets foggier the more she’s forced to interrogate her reasons for making it): is she perhaps trying to find in Anthony some authentically dramatic life experience of her own that will help fuel an artistic awakening more unique to her? Fictionalising aspects of her own conflicted experiences as a National Film and Television School student in the 1980s, Hogg imbues the film with sly insider knowledge (there’s a definite sense of few scores being settled here) and she’s aided by an enigmatic, inscrutable performance from newcomer Byrne, whose own mother, Tilda Swinton, starred in Hogg’s graduation film and pops up here as Julie’s wealthy parent. The end result is a sincere, audaciously complex, artistically rich attempt to grapple with the difficulty of figuring out how to articulate something meaningful in a medium built on artifice.

The late Agnès Varda offers a few pointers in how to do just that in her final film, which screens at the festival again tomorrow. Taking the form of a series of autobiographical lectures exploring her own career, Varda by Agnès sees the 90-year-old godmother of the French New Wave delivering a typically playful and generous exploration of her filmmaking process that illuminates how her own life shaped and was shaped by her work. It’s an absolute gift of a film from a director whose understood that sharing was a key part of her creativity.

It’s too bad What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael fails to convey the latter part of its title. The penetrating New Yorker film critic, who died in 2001, deserves a better documentary about her life and work than this flimsy, toothless, largely hagiographic primer. Kael freed up film criticism with her slangy, evocative style and her willingness to pour her own life into her reviews; this film drains that life out of her work with its dull adherence to talking-head interviews and Wikipedia-style factoids. - Alistair Harkness

For screening times and tickets, see edfilmfest.org