In Souvenir, Isabelle Huppert boinks someone a third her age and looks damn good doing it. It’s a story we’ve seen told onscreen so many times before that it could be its own genre. Still, I’m not sure it’s ever been this delightfully, delicately sweet. There are shots in Souvenir of Huppert reading on a bus & eye-fucking a young man that look like they were airlifted specifically from 2016’s somber, philosophy-minded Things to Come, but its overall tone is much closer to the tipsy glamour of a Muriel’s Wedding, complete with extensive references to ABBA. Souvenir is a delicately surreal comedy. Decades ago, it would have been referred to as “a woman’s picture.” As such, I suspect it’s unlikely to be as well-respected within the Isabelle Huppert Boinking Younger Men canon as films that strive to be Serious Art, but it’s covertly one of the best specimens of its ilk.
Huppert stars as a pâté factory worker (does it get more French than that?) with a limelit past she’d rather not be discovered. She’s drawn out of hiding when a young coworker/amateur boxer catches her eye with a sweetly innocent line of flirtation. Her young beau may be a loser who lives at home with his parents, but he has a kind of dopey charm & a fearless enthusiasm she cannot resist. He also inflates her own ego, recognizing her from her forgotten past as a finalist in the European Song Contest three decades ago (where she lost to ABBA, no shame in that). She’s terrified by his pleas to relaunch her career, but the excitement of pleasing him overpowers her desire to fade into her drab, solitary work & home life. The stakes of revitalizing her vintage career as a pop singer while initiating a love story with a (much) younger man are low, but painful: televised embarrassments, being stood up for diner, hearing herself described as “like ABBA, but not so famous,” etc. As thematically slight as the dual romance & pop star career revival stories might come across, though, the movie is never short of lovely.
Where Souvenir might feel slight in its narrative, it excels in its candy-coated imagery. The film opens in a bath of CG champagne bubbles and emerges into a freshly manicured, absurdly symmetrical world of bright colors & vintage pop music. Even Huppert’s factory job looks like a delicious dream, including countless primly-staged, bird’s-eye-view shots of pâté that should wear you down, but hypnotize instead. I was struck by the Old Hollywood glamour of certain scenes as well, typified by Huppert’s multiple (!) musical numbers & the rear projection shots of our mismatched couple’s steamy motorcycle rides. Souvenir is an inexpensive, lowkey delight, but looks far more appetizing than many films 10x its budget.
While Huppert Boinking Young’ns is almost enough of a repeated story pattern to be its own genre, the European Song Contest indie comedy is a well-established genre with a long tradition of recognizable tropes & narrative beats. Souvenir has a familiar skeleton, but its sugary exterior makes it an exceptional specimen. First off, Huppert looks incredible. Her first appearance is in the glamour photo lighting of a makeup mirror and it never diminishes form there; the camera loves her. It’s nice to see that quality applied to irreverent humor & playful eroticism for once, instead of the pitch-black descents into ennui & cruelty Huppert is usually cast in. Her gracefully unenthused dance moves, nonchalant pop music vocals, and fierce but delicate sexual humor elevate every frame she touches to the point where a movie that should be pedestrian is instead a kind of wonder. Souvenir is not the type of Huppert Boinking Youngsters picture that tends to score high critical marks or Best of The Year accolades, just like how the similarly femme irreverence of The Dressmaker is not the kind of Western that earns that kind of attention. It’s a gorgeous object & a glamorous heart-warmer, though, a subtly impressive, candy-coated dream.