Isabelle Huppert is always extraordinary. Her face is a story in motion. The only other actress I can think of with such vivid emotional range, but doesn’t rely on it to get her through the day is Gena Rowlands, wife of the late great John Cassavettes, who can say more with one sideways glance than anyone else I’ve ever seen. Marion Cottillard also has that elusive quality but her ability to appear cute in the eyes of an audience enraptured by her beauty can unfairly rob her of the gravitas that Huppert and Rowlands possess.
In Souvenir Huppert plays Lillian, once a singing sensation that almost won the European Song Contest. Fast forward 30yrs and she’s working in a factory – garnishing pate. A young would be light-weight boxing champion, Kevin Azais as Jean, arrives in the factory to get cashed up, recognises her and becomes besotted, eventually convincing her to abandon retirement for one night to sing at his club’s fundraiser.
What follows is both comedic and baffling. I became unsure if I was watching a parody or an over the top romance. I decide it doesn’t matter, sometimes the French do weird and wonderful things and it’s best to just go with it… although Director / Writer Bavo Fume is Belgian so I don’t know where that leaves my argument.
There are conflicting elements in Souvenir. Are we engaging in a discourse on ageist attitudes via the significant difference in birth date’s between our leading couple, or the pitfalls of addiction as Lillian’s cosy relationship with alcohol pops up or the grisly pitfalls of show business.
A creative life can be a cruel mistress and a crueller industry, falling from grace and landing squarely in the lap of the ridiculous all present themselves as targets and yet there were so many camp moments, so many delightfully over the top displays of emotion sitting right next to some serious work I became confused about the intention of film.
It was so romantic on one hand and on the other a brutal dissection of the life of a woman (very different story if it had been a man in showbiz, so perhaps even a nod in the direction of sexism?) once adored by her nation, who is possibly alcoholic, maybe selfish and controlling, definitely wayward and now walking around with dead eyes and who appears totally isolated.
The boxing lover, Jean, is gorgeous in a very camp way, again perplexing. There were a few laugh out loud moments, for me anyway, when he opens the curtains (in various rooms) bare-chested, turns toward the camera and smiles, this happens in a series of locations and each time light floods the screen and he seems to be glowing. They can’t be serious? Can they?
Jean’s father and mother are wonderful. The father in particular is hysterical, as he can’t quite get his head around the fact that his son is bedding the woman he once had a celebrity crush on. The mother is not impressed with Lillian, she’s not impressed with her son’s participation in the older woman/younger man scenario or her husbands doe eyed, but innocent, worship of this overrated quietly beautiful femme who seems to be able to weave voodoo on those around her without so much as opening her mouth half the time.
Fume delivers a film full of questions and as we observe Lillian’s recklessness partnered with her seclusion and isolation she becomes more enigmatic. When she reveals her free spirit via her relationship with Jean, the young boxer who wants to breath life back into her career, we start to see a complex woman who maybe is not as still and controlled as the we’re first led to believe.
The public is so obsessed with success stories, but equally fixated on the rich, famous, talented and beautiful dive-bombing into scandal or obscurity. Lillian fits the bill exquisitely.
Lillian’s stage name was Laura and we get some insight to her previous life, just enough to make us wonder what the hell she’s really doing in this pate factory. Her ex-husband was her manager, composer, accountant, promoter and when he ran off with a younger filly things went sideways for ‘Laura’ and eventually she stops singing and we meet her decades later, now living alone in small but chic apartment drinking and smoking each night in the glow of TV light as she watches general knowledge type game shows.
This is a story of redemption and new life but secreted amongst the likeable quirks and bent comedic romping is the pulse of conflict and questionable behaviours. Longue vie Isabelle!
Showing at various Palace Cinemas as part of the Alliance Francaise French Film Festival.