While her performance in Paul Verhoeven’s Elle was, for obvious reasons, making waves last year, and Things To Come further cemented her status as one of modern cinema’s finest actors, Isabelle Huppert also turned up in a far smaller and light-hearted film that seemed to slip under the radar. Souvenir is a departure from her usual fare, a sweet romantic drama that sees her take the role of Isabelle, a pâté factory worker discontented with her lot in life. That is, until a younger man, Jean (Kévin Azaïs), begins work on the production line and pulls her secret past out of the shadows.
Despite Jean insisting she is a dead ringer of Laura, a one-hit wonder from the 70s who almost won the Eurovision Song Contest before being beaten out by ABBA, Isabelle is having none of it. Laura mysteriously disappeared from trace after her big moment in the spotlight and with a little a persistence, Jean finally gets Isabelle to admit that she and Laura are indeed one and the same. As the attraction between the two grows, Jean begins to coax Isabelle back towards her singing career, ditching his own dreams of turning pro in the boxing ranks to become her new manager.
The script has no interest in judging Isabelle for her attraction towards Jean, despite their age difference, which makes for a refreshing change. The generation gap mostly takes a back seat to the possibility that they could actually build a future together, as Isabelle’s comeback appearance at the Eurovision audition places in her into the finals. With little need to stretch herself too far in this role, Huppert is always a delight to watch and its light, kitschy edge is possibly one of the reasons she took it in the first place, giving herself a well-deserved break from the complicated characters she usually takes on. Standing on stage imitating Dietrich, while the Bacharach-style melodies swing by, you can tell she’s having a great time.
Director Bavo Defurne stages his story in a small world full of earth-toned retro fittings, old TV sets, mopeds and soft focus close-ups, placing Isabelle’s past life into a charming time capsule. The breezy soundtrack sweetly nestles in with the throwback romance of Jean and Isabelle and it’s hard not to be swept along with a content smile, won over by the innocence of it all. Whether Defurne intended to shy away from the idea of shared redemption or looking at an older woman’s sexual desires, then it certainly doesn’t show through in the script. Instead, thanks to its endearing warmth, the film sails through its airy 90 minutes with relative ease, making it an enjoyable but almost instantly forgettable watch.