Souvenir – Film Review by David Turpin
Directed by Bruno Derfurne
Starring Isabelle Huppert, Kévin Azaïs, Johan Leyson
Souvenir, Belgian director Bruno Derfurne’s second feature, after the charming North Sea Texas (2011), is a light and often charming affair that owes much of its appeal to the apparent casting-against-type of Isabelle Huppert, grande dame of the weighty and transgressive. Warm and good-natured, the film is a breezy hour and a half’s entertainment, although it never rises to the ecstasies of camp promised by its beautiful Pierre et Gilles-designed poster.
Huppert plays Liliane, a lowly pâté-factory employee with a surprising past: she was once Laura, a runner up in the European Song Contest (“Eurovision” being a closely guarded trademark), whose ascent was halted only by the unstoppable juggernaut of Abba. After being unexpectedly bitten once more by the performance bug, Liliane/Laura begins to inch toward a comeback, with an unlikely ally – and love interest – in the form of a young aspiring boxer, Jean (Kévin Azaïs).
In this part of the world, much of the curiosity value of what ensues derives from the feeling that this is a startling volte-face for Huppert, who has been particularly celebrated in recent years for her stern work with Michael Haneke, and her ferocious turn in Paul Verhoeven’s Elle (2016). This isn’t necessarily the case. Huppert performs fairly regularly in lighter fare – for instance, Pascal Bonitzer’s workplace farce Tout de suit maintenant (2016) – although these films rarely travel far beyond French borders. The novelty-value of Souvenir is, then, a little more complicated than it seems – playing as it does upon a distillation of Huppert’s career, rather than on its reality.
Still, one has to go back as far as David O. Russell’s I Heart Huckabees (2004) to find Huppert playing broad comedy for an international audience, and as far back as François Ozon’s delightful 8 Women (2002) to find her in a musical. Of course, both these films played on her particular gift for playing disdain – which, it must be said, comes more naturally to her than singing – while Souvenir takes the arguably more dangerous route of having her play something of an everywoman, albeit with a colourful past.
Also, Souvenir isn’t so much a musical comedy as it is a sort of light drama with music. Much of the plot – particularly the all-too-predictable obstacles that arise to impede Liliane’s return to the stage – is more soapy than farcical, and the intended bittersweet tone ends up congealing at a fairly neutral midway point. At the same time, there is a casual open-heartedness about Souvenir that’s hard not to like – particularly in its blessedly non-hysterical presentation of the burgeoning relationship between a woman in her sixties and a man in his twenties.
If one were being very generous to Souvenir, one could say that its casting of Huppert represents a reframing of icons analogous to Derfurne’s early short Saint (1996), which cheekily presents the death of St. Sebastian as a peek-a-boo erotic spectacle. That’s probably reading a little too much into this slight but engaging film (and if one thing is clear from Huppert’s heroically varied career, it’s that she has little interest in playing saints or being enshrined as an icon). Ultimately, Souvenir is one of those entertainments that one is almost obliged to liken to a soufflé, and in the interest of not failing an unwritten journalistic code, this correspondent can report that while it perhaps doesn’t rise all the way, it certainly goes down easily.