Any film would really have to go out of its way to convince audiences that the great Isabelle Huppert could be a factory worker who rides the bus after her shift is over and watches trashy television when she gets home, still smelling like the pâté she makes at work. Thankfully, writer-director Bavo Defurne only asks us to believe in a working-class Huppert, as Liliane, for the first few minutes of Souvenir. Because it’s not too long before Liliane’s enamored new co-worker, Jean (Kévin Azaïs), outs her as Laura, a one-hit-wonder singer who lost everything that her meteoric fame once gave her.
Playing a decaying diva is an effortless endeavor for Huppert. The trouble is that her presence feels too colossal for such a small and cheesy film as this. Though Huppert’s iconic gravitas pleasantly highlights the contrast between Liliane and Jean, a naïve boxer in his early 20s who ends up convincing her to attempt a comeback, Souvenir’s screenplay is just too predictable. This is a film that inexplicably leans on music rather than on Huppert’s talent to convey Liliane’s emotional state, and its idea of characters growing closer to one another is having Liliane ask Jean to help her zip up the back of her dress. There’s also the recurring motif of Liliane swigging Scotch, which predictably culminates in a scene where the newly revamped Laura is too drunk not to make a fool of herself on stage and risk ruining everything.
It’s all a bit ridiculous, from the ever-present score to the obviously green-screened motorcycle rides to the hospital scenes that feel lifted from a soap opera. Still, Huppert is such a master of her craft that even the silliest sequences give way to tour-de-force moments, as when Liliane performs as Laura for the first time in decades. She sings a song, “Souvenir,” as a one-time gift to Jean as they start having their fling. More than a comeback, the moment is her desperate attempt to prove to Jean that she’s still “got it”—not as a singer, but as a woman. Liliane goes through an outdated choreography with her hands, simulating the lyrics of the song, an ode to a pretty boy with “concrete arms” and “a candy heart.” And for a moment, we forget the film’s trite foundation as we focus on Liliane’s swan song. She knows a real comeback is unsustainable and so is her love affair. Still, she rocks her stunning couture gown, which recalls Elsa Schiaparelli and Salvador Dali’s famed lobster dress, and goes through the motions, buoyant before the abyss.