Souvenir is not the first movie where Isabelle Huppert portrays the older lover in a May-December romance. She has played similar roles in The Piano Teacher (2001) and Abuse of Weakness (2013). However, these films refuse to award her characters any happy endings but instead force them to confront their own humiliation, often seen as a direct consequence of their dare to desire. Souvenir, however, does not seek to punish. Brimming with an infectious intensity, Bavo Defurne’s film not only communicates a woman’s need for love but also justifies her right to be romantically and sexually fulfilled.
The plot of Souvenir can certainly raise eyebrows, but it is this very absurd quality that adds to the film’s tongue-in-cheek charm. Liliane (Isabelle Huppert), a pate factory worker, has a surprising past career as a pop singer who almost won the Eurovision contest for France. Now she spends her days decorating trays of pate and her nights sitting blankly in front of a television screen. Her life consists only of two colors, the impassioned white of her workplace and the drab, muted brown of her home. Her resignation from life is almost comical in its determinedness; in one scene, Lillian is seen reading a book titled “The Death of the Heart” while sitting in a box full of chatty passengers. Her refusal to engage with the outside world comes to a halt when Jean (Kévin Azaïs), a young boxer, shows up at the pate factory and, through his attraction to Liliane, revives both her career and personal life.
Souvenir chronicles the development of Liliane and Jean’s relationship with over-the-top visuals to the point of near ridiculousness, and yet this intentionally tacky approach is what makes Liliane’s transformation so earnest and endearing. In a particularly intimate sequence, the unlikely couple are relaxing in a bathtub together when Jean asks Liliane what she associates with the color pink, to which she replies, “love.” Indeed, whenever Liliane is sharing a romantic moment with Jean, the screen is unabashedly lit up with a sensual palette filled with red and pink. Even mundane moments such as when Liliane hops on Jean’s motorbike are elevated to the realm of fantasy, for their background is vividly saturated with colors in the style of an artificial matte painting. Through filming the romantic sequences in the same style as the Liliane’s glittery, neon-lit stage performances, Souvenir does not condemn or make fun of her desire to be loved, but instead denotes that Liliane deserves to have a love story that is spectacularly larger than life. In the same vein, the events of the plot play like a soap opera, yet their clichés are completely self-aware. In other words, Liliane’s new found love restore her current dull existence to its previous state of absolute passion, as indicated in the vintage video of her performing at Eurovision in a shimmery gown. With Jean’s love, once again, Liliane can fulfill that image again, both literally and metaphorically.
Souvenir’s love story might be simplistic in its conventions; nevertheless, it is in no way forgettable. May-December romances usually harbor the risk of coming off as forced, but Huppert and Azaïs’ natural acting adds an organic quality to the relationship between their characters. Their physical quirks, such as Liliane’s awkward dance at a party and Jean’s completely candid gesture of flexing his muscles for his lover’s viewing pleasure, helps Souvenir become sincere and real in its charm.
Follow Phuong Le on Twitter (@smallnartless)