by Ken Bakely
Isabelle Huppert is one of the best actors in the world, and she sells even the thin script of Bavo Defurne’s Souvenir with great confidence and understanding. Centered around the career revival of a faded Eurovision star from the ‘70s, the plot is as airy as the lounge music that Huppert sings with all her heart, and yet we know we’re in good hands, because there’s never a point where we doubt her belief in the character or her considered ability to pull in everyone and everything around her, cementing the movie’s universe as pleasant and recognizable. Defurne, who previously made North Sea Texas, an exquisitely mounted coming of age drama, works with a lighter tone than before, but the brief runtime works in his favor. His penchant for fuzzy, dream-like cinematography and simple color schemes survives the transition, becoming less about the memory simulation of recalled youth, and more about blissful romantic fantasy, sealed by bouncy music.
Therein, he’s drawn to simple structures and characters. His origins, as a director of short films, explain why character dimensions and personalities are frequently tentative at best, but it does allow us a chance to observe their relationships in reaction to plot developments, which tend to be more disciplined. The main one in Souvenir concerns Huppert’s Liliane, working a monotonous job at a pâté factory assembly line, and Jean (Kévin Azaïs), a 21 year old amateur boxer who’s assigned a temp job at the factory. He recognizes Liliane immediately (his father was a huge fan), and despite her reluctance, gets her to sing at an informal social gathering. The performance enough attention to receive coverage on the local news, and Jean offers to become Liliane’s manager and enter her into a longshot chance to sing at Eurovision again.
Liliane finds the prospect ridiculous, but humors him, as all the while, romance blossoms between the two. Souvenir makes good use of Huppert and Azaïs’s chemistry, and the younger actor is in no way overwhelmed by his seasoned co-star. Yet while their coupling is the closeness that brings everything about to begin with, Defurne moves it to the backburner, making it an emotional charge that loses both its emotion and charge. The two argue and break-up countless times, only to drop it a scene later and move on with the plot. This subplot is never as tight or convincing as the film’s focus on Liliane’s own singing, the specific feelings she has toward her manager/boyfriend, and the conflict of returning to the life that she has long abandoned, even for a few days. Defurne fails to give her a throughline besides cynicism gained through her past, but once again, Huppert’s consummate talent keeps us from giving up entirely. In a climactic scene in which Liliane performs at a televised competition, Huppert, donned in a striking, ruby red dress, delivers a catchy uptempo ditty with effortless command.
We appreciate these scenes, and the simmering comedy Defurne weaves throughout, focusing on the ironies of Liliane’s insistence on anonymity, juxtaposed against each jump in her return. Yet that same cyclical nature renders the script without stakes or consequences. It’s telling that many key events take place at the qualifying round for a semifinal, far removed from the higher aspirations that it never really believed in. Since everything is so rote, Souvenir leans heavily on the likability of its performers and the inherent easygoing virtues of its plotting. It’s a trifle, though not one without limited delights. In its best moments, Defurne knows when to dial his interventions back, and let things ride on a very uncomplicated charm. There’s an earnestness to the whole production, and yes, we do believe that one of Liliane’s co-workers at the factory could think that she only lost that early Eurovision contest because Sweden “rigged the votes” to game the system towards their act that year, a little band called ABBA.