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.
Isabelle Huppert can do no wrong these days. Her appetite for taking on a variety of different roles with a wide range of directors is exemplary. Well into her fifth decade as an actor, she has created a filmography second to none. With Souvenir she again shows how willing she is to challenge, explore, and expand her artistry.
Here she plays Liliane, an apparently innocuous worker in a pâté factory. Quiet and unassuming, she is a model employee, happily putting in a day's work with no fuss. Her job is mechanical and repetitive, but that suits her fine. At quitting time she returns home to sit on the couch and watch TV. Then, one day, a new worker joins the team. Jean (Kévin Azaïs), a young man who boxes in his spare time, is like a breath of fresh air and, intrigued by Liliane, is eager to become her friend. A platonic relationship forms and Liliane begins to enjoy the relief Jean offers from her previous homebody existence. But, as the two see more of each other, he grows convinced that she is not who she says she is: he thinks he saw her on television when he was young. Liliane denies it — until circumstances force her to confront his insistence about her past.
This unusual relationship drama is handled exquisitely by director Bavo Defurne, who guides the film forward so subtly that its understatement becomes, alongside Huppert, its greatest strength.
Plot never overwhelms character in Souvenir as it turns into a beautifully observed battle of perspectives between two friends at distinctly different points in their lives: the young optimist versus the jaded cynic who has stared disappointment in the face before.