Isabelle Huppert Revives Her Pop Singing Career in “Souvenir”

The actress can express more with a cocked eyebrow or a smirk than many others can with words


Is there any image more quirkily French than that of Isabelle Huppert working in a paté-making factory? Souvenir, a lightweight portrait of Huppert as Liliane, a former pop singer, suggests there is not. Having fallen out of the spotlight, Liliane now works the assembly line and, when she’s home, sits idly in front of the TV until a new worker, Jean (Kévin Azaïs), shakes things up — he recognizes Liliane and insists that she go back to performing.

The first half of the film offers a compelling portrait of an emerging friendship, and Huppert is reliably dynamic, expressing more with a cocked eyebrow or a smirk than many actors can with words. But things take a naggingly predictable turn: Jean — who is 21, tattooed, and an amateur boxer, and Liliane — some forty years his senior — start hooking up, and Jean becomes her manager. While none of it ever sinks into melodrama, it’s easy to wonder what the story might have looked like without the element of a sexual relationship.

Liliane does make a comeback of sorts, and Huppert plays her not as a diva but as a withholding chanteuse whose voice isn’t as great as expected. One recurring image is Liliane having Jean zip up her dress. After a fight, Liliane, wearing an elegant gown, asks a different man to zip it for her. The implication that she needs a man has a sour aftertaste, and while there’s poignancy to be found in Souvenir’s depiction of aging and work, the sexual politics leave something to be desired.

Directed by Bavo Defurne
Strand Releasing
Opens March 2, Quad Cinema