It’s little known that Marlon Brando is responsible for most of the terrible acting in the last half-century. Not Marlon Brando himself, at least not for the most part, but the self-satisfied seriousness of the scores of method acting acolytes who followed in his wake. Instead of propagating realism, we now have a plethora of samey mumbling and “look at me, I’m doing the acting!” performances, of which the worst offenders are Leonardo DiCaprio and Christian Bale, who can barely get through five minutes in a movie without doing something to tell you that they are really working very hard at this job and you should be extremely appreciative, you philistine!
The generation of pre-Brando actors in Hollywood belonged to a different way of acting – the Humphrey Bogarts, Ingrid Bergmans, Cary Grants, Lauren Bacalls, John Waynes and Katherine Hepburns – that today is largely lost. These were actors who lived mostly from their natural charisma and personal style (of which they had acres). They made it look easy. All the camera had to do was point in their direction, and most of the work was already done. Even Brando had the natural charisma to tear up a screen in the same way. For whatever reason, in the decades since, movie stars seem to have lost that power. Can you imagine Tom Cruise holding the camera’s gaze all on his own? Or Harrison Ford? Scarlett Johansen? Jennifer Lawrence? All capable of delivering fine performances, sure, but not of holding an audience’s gaze on their own.
So what has all that got to do with Souvenir? Another new film starring the already prolific Isabelle Huppert, who’s now on maybe her sixth or seventh film of the last year. Because Souvenir is not a very good film; it’s predictable from the start, it’s clichéd, and despite a few smart touches from director Bavo Defurne, it’s not all that interesting to look at. But it has Isabelle Huppert at its centre, and that’s enough. No other actor today is as easily capable of holding the audience’s attention, even despite mediocre material. It helps of course, that aside from being effortlessly charismatic she is also exceptionally talented. Elle, the latest film from Paul Verhoeven, released earlier this year, is a perfect example of her ability to combine acting class and silver-screen charisma, it’s easily one of the best films of the year thus far.
In Souvenir, Huppert stars as Lillian Cheverny, a former French Eurovision star of the ‘70s, who lost out to Abba, and then found her career spiralling downwards. We meet her working at a pâté factory and passing the nights with TV and alcohol, where she meets Jean (Kevin Azaïs) an aspiring amateur boxer, who recognises her from her former life. Initially reluctant to return to the spotlight, a burgeoning romance with Jean encourages her to stage a comeback, where she finds the pressure too great, returning to drink.
Yes, this is another ‘former star riddled with demons stages comeback’ film. And I could spend a while listing this film’s deficiencies, even in this already cliché-ridden genre – the fact that Lillian’s relationship with Jean seems to be based on plot requirements rather than personality, the blandness of the music despite being so supposedly central to the film, the plot beats visible from well beyond the horizon – it feels pertinent to mention that somehow, despite all this, Huppert manages to sell it, bringing more depth to her character than is sometimes warranted.
Buried deep in here is a film about nostalgia, stardom and the confluence between the two, where the scuppered trajectory of someone’s life finds itself scrutinised whenever they step back out into the limelight, being at both the cage holding them back and the catalyst for their return. People love comeback stories, especially in the music business, because it gives them a chance to bask in memories of the glory days whilst also patting themselves on the back for managing to stay on the straight and narrow, unlike these failures. Think of the swathes of adulation Johnny Cash received in the ‘90s after making his comeback with American Recordings. It’s easy to forget that, at that point, he’d been largely written-off as a has-been. Or Gil Scott-Heron’s comeback with I’m New Here a few years ago, another great artist who lost his way in drugs and prison until his “rediscovery”. These stories sell their work as much as the music does, because it gives us ink-spillers something exciting to write about.
It’s something that Isabelle Huppert seems to implicitly understand. When Lillian first begins performing again, returning to her old hits from the ‘70s, Huppert portrays her as being disdainfully amused, as if asking where the hell have these ‘fans’ been these past decades? As Lillian grows back into performing, Huppert gives her stage shows spark and smirk, but backstage she’s still the same fragile woman, worried about losing her found-again success. Huppert delivers this with such believability and ease that it’s easy to forget that there are other actors in the film (in fairness, they mostly do a solid job). Souvenir is absolutely an average film, in almost all senses of the word. Were it not for Isabelle Huppert’s presence, I probably would have entirely forgotten about it by now.
Souvenir is now showing at Chapter Arts Centre until 31st July.