Thursday 25 January 2018

Souvenir (Bavo Defurne, 2016)

It's not too often that we see Isabelle Huppert starring in something as light and breezy as Souvenir, as the acclaimed actress is far more likely to turn up in much heavier fare such as the severe, austere works of Michael Haneke or Paul Verhoeven's feather-ruffling ElleSouvenir carries more than an echo of Copacabana (another Belgian film starring Huppert), and, as with that film, it's nice to see the actress operating in a different gear.  While Souvenir may be so slight it could just about blow away, Huppert's performance is typically magnetic and she glues the whole flimsy affair together; you strongly suspect that, without her presence, the film would be at the level of a forgettable TV movie.

Huppert's Liliane is a lonely factory worker who, several decades earlier and under the name Laura, nearly won the Eurovision European Song Contest (legal reasons?) but was pipped at the last by a Swedish act known as ABBA (who, it's alleged, cheated their way to the title).  Following this near miss, Laura separated from her husband-manager Tony (Johan Leysen) and drifted into obscurity.  Jean (Kévin Azaïs), a young temp at the factory, recognises her (his dad is a big fan, which highlights how many years have passed since the contest) and tries to convince her to come out of retirement just for one evening.  Although Liliane would rather stay out of the limelight, she agrees to help out this rather sweet young man, but soon the two are in a relationship and Jean is Laura's new manager, with the goal being to relaunch her singing career.

While Jean doesn't lack enthusiasm, he has no real clue about showbiz and has only just recently ditched plans to become a professional boxer.  While her youthful lover is able to secure several low-key (and very dispiriting) gigs, things hot up when Laura decides to again audition for the European Song Contest.  As Jean has very limited knowledge and experience, Liliane turns to Tony for help with her preparations for the big event; unsurprisingly, she doesn't tell Jean about this, thus telegraphing the drama which will unfold as the film reaches its climax. 

While Souvenir is all a bit too predictable, it again provides proof that Isabelle Huppert, arguably the world's greatest living actress, is capable of elevating the thinnest material into something worth watching.  It makes for a fun hour and a half (wisely, Defurne resists the temptation to spin things out for any longer), and while the May-September romance on display is hardly a new screen concept, there are a few touching (and amusing) moments along the way.  Souvenir made its way round most European countries in 2017, but a limited US theatrical release is planned for March; a region 2 DVD is available now.

Darren Arnold

Images: UniFrance

Tuesday 2 January 2018