Isabelle Huppert stars as a middle-aged factory worker whose long-ago brush with fame comes to the fore again when she begins a romance with a young aspiring boxer.
TORONTO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: Souvenir is both love story and show business fable, in the old style. Director Bavo Defurne (who co-wrote the script with Jacques Boon and Yves Verbraeken) has fashioned a woman-in-trouble melodrama with inflections of A Star Is Born and a little Almodóvar. The result is inoffensive, pastry-light, and occasionally quite lovely. It is also extremely, determinedly, charmingly European.
Liliane (Isabelle Huppert) works at a factory, where from nine to five she arranges two leaves and sprinkling of dried berries atop a succession of enormous loafs of paté. Our first clue that Liliane doesn’t belong on the garnish line is that she leaves the factory each night looking exactly like Isabelle Huppert – her boots clicking and strawberry hair feathering as she hustles for the bus. A new worker at the factory, a twenty-one-year-old boxer named Jean (Kévin Azaïs), furnishes the second clue: he recognizes Liliane as a former contestant on the European Song Contest (an obvious reference to the long-running Eurovision Song Contest).
At first Jean pesters the reticent Liliane about her past: she had one hit, then fell out with her manager/lover, then fell out of view. Liliane, who retires each night to the television and a huge tumbler of whiskey, demurs. But Jean persists: his father had loved Liliane; she might win hearts once more! Soon enough, Liliane takes an interest in Jean’s interest; she spends their first several encounters trying to get his coat off. Though she hasn’t performed in decades, she agrees to sing her old hit at a banquet for Jean’s boxing club, and the old bug bites again.
Souvenir is almost entirely held together by Huppert’s wry, sober, enigmatic presence. It’s good fun to watch Huppert play a camp performer – all mannered gestures and mugging – but it’s not much more than that.
Souvenir is almost entirely held together by Huppert’s wry, sober, enigmatic presence. That presence defines Liliane as well, who is a singer in the Dietrich mold, a cabaret act with a passable voice but a magnetic, inimitable star quality. It’s good fun to watch Huppert play a camp performer – all mannered gestures and mugging – but it’s not much more than that. Azaïs is endearing as Liliane’s acolyte, and then her lover; the film’s lack of fuss over their affair is refreshing.
Jean proves a muse to Liliane: he proposes abandoning his boxing career in order to become her new manager. Soon Liliane is playing old age homes and corporate picnics, riding the bus home in her chintzy stage dresses. Jean proposes a second stint on the European Song Contest, and Liliane agrees, proposing secretly to her old manager that he write her a second hit. That song, “Joli Garçon” (Pretty Boy), composed by Pink Martini, is pure camp, pure silliness, and I sang it for days.
Liliane’s comeback goes almost precisely according to plan, which is about the point at which Souvenir begins to fall apart at its loosely basted seams. Liliane’s character proves too thinly sketched to support the crisis that ensues; throughout she appears moved about like a pawn, her relationship to performance and to fame as wispy as Huppert’s ballerina frame. Defurne has little to say about economies of fame, or the mechanics of an institution like Eurovision, the effect it has on the lives of the people it feeds on. Even so, Souvenir is never less than amusing to watch; refusing to carry any more narrative weight than necessary frees the film to concentrate on its considerable sweetness. Je dis oui.