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2018 CEUFF: Souvenir

March 11, 2018




As always, this year’s annual film festival will be loaded with Chicago premieres, sixty-one actually, from twenty-eight European Union (EU) nations. The largest festival in North America that exclusively showcases films from the EU is once again running almost a full month, from March 9th through April 5th, at the Gene Siskel Film Center and, although there seems to be a film festival just about every weekend here in the Windy City, this is one of my very favorites, thanks to both its specificity and variety. It’s a festival that never fails to turn me on to filmmakers and actors who are new to me, in films that take me to places I’ve never been to. However, some films stand out when I see certain actors showing up in the lineup. Such is at the case when I noticed that Isabelle Huppert, one of the most luminescent actors alive, appears in “Souvenir”. 



Huppert’s presence immediately makes the latest film from Belgian writer/director Bavo Defurne a must-see, but then again any film with Huppert is a must-see. Granted, “Souvenir” is my first exposure to Defurne, but watching it definitely left me interested in his previous work. So, I’ll have to look up “North Sea Texas”, a coming-of-age teen drama from 2011, to get an idea what else he’s capable of. In the meantime, there’s “Souvenir” which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2016 and finally sees a limited theatrical release here in the States this month.

As the film opens, we’re introduced to Huppert’s character, who is working a monotonous position in a pâté-factory assembly line somewhere in modern-day France. She goes to work and then goes home where she lives alone and watches television by herself, pouring herself one too many as her company. From her expression, its clear she has resolved herself to a daily repetition that requires very little of her, but something happens when someone new arrives at her workplace. He is young and handsome and piques her curiosity and there’s something about her that strikes his attention almost instantly.

It’s through this new arrival, Jean (Kevin Azaïs, “Love at First Fight”), a twenty-four-year-old amateur boxer, that we learn that her name is Liliane and she who she was once. He recognizes her as someone who was once a somewhat famous singer, having competed in the European Song Contest back in the 70s as “Laura” and coming in second place to the Swedish group ABBA. (The film is named after a song that she was mostly known for). Of course, in an effort to maintain her privacy, Laura denies she is who he says she is, but after a couple interactions with the curious young man, she can’t deny feeling the attention she hasn’t felt in so long, the kind that she is surprised to realize she still longs for. As Jean realizes he has no chance at a boxing career, he decides to focus his time and energy as Liliane’s manager, in an effort to resurrect a comeback for the singer.

Despite a forty year age gap, the two hook up, which is something that won’t be a surprise for viewers. She is amused and invigorated by his enthusiasm and forwardness, something which is a nice break from her monotony. Granted, it doesn’t happen right away and it’s clear there is no future for them, especially after Jean’s jealousy and impetuousness shows his age. What instigates this is Liliane turning to a peer, her former ex-husband/former manager, Tony Jones (Johan Leysen), to reignite her songwriting process. She knows she needs new material if she is to compete again in the European Song Contest and who better to connect with than the one person who supplied her with successful songs in the past.  The big question is whether or not it is too late for Liliane to attempt such a return. It’s not that her voice isn’t still there, it’s what she’s become and where she’s at in life that could prevent her from going all the way this time.

What would’ve helped “Souvenirs” is for the audience to acknowledge Jean’s desirability, something that would help us understand what Liliane sees in him. Besides the fact that someone desires her again, it’s hard to pinpoint what specifically it is about this guy and his awful mustache that she is drawn to. It’s the most jarring aspect of the film and it’s not necessarily due to the portrayal by Azaïs, but rather the way in which Defurne and his co-writers, Yves Verbraeken and Jacques Boon, treat the character. He’s not really charismatic nor does he have much to offer Liliane except his youth and perhaps a confidence booster. Liliane, on the other hand, is played by Huppert, so it’s easy to understand the attraction there. Huppert’s naturalness and whole-hearted commitment to her roles typically inject an authenticity and freedom to any movie she’s in. Her singing voice isn’t in know way marvelous, but her stage presence and disposition is captivating and it becomes no surprise that her listeners in the film are enraptured by her.

Perhaps more blunt conversations between Jean and Isabelle would’ve really stuck the landing in regards to their burgeoning relationship, but maybe the fact that the story is eventually falling into the realization that it’s just not going to work out between them, is what injects the film with its strongest dose of reality. That being said, hearing Huppert sing is enough of a draw for me.



RATING: **1/2



“Souvenir” played yesterday at 3pm and will be shown again on Monday, March 12th at 6pm. For tickets, click here.



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