If the insular bubble of a contentious relationship is the focus of Joanna Hogg’s autobiographical film The Souvenir, then the piercing perspective of outsiders in The Souvenir Part II completely shatters the previous film’s detached disillusionment. This incongruous shift manages to complement rather than detract, allowing for both candid cognizance and deliberate deconstruction of distinct memories. While the first installment depicts the filmmaker’s tumultuous relationship with a mysterious older man while studying film in her early 20s, Part II actively reflects on the process of mining one’s trauma for artistic gain—how it can mend and muddle the lingering specter of life long ago.
After the relationship between Julie (Hogg’s avatar Honor Swinton Byrne) and Anthony (Tom Burke) tragically dissolves, she deals with the pain (and puts off processing) by throwing herself into her studies in preparation for her capstone. Though she originally sets out to direct a narrative film about the mining community in the working class city of Sunderland, her recent loss entices her to instead draw from her lived experiences. Without Anthony in the picture, characters simply touched upon in the first installment are given much greater emphasis; with Julie unencumbered by the constant demands and strained anxiety innate to dating Anthony, previously ancillary characters become newfound sources of support and dissension.
Among these characters is Rosalind (Tilda Swinton), Julie’s mother, who is overjoyed to have her daughter staying at the rural family residence on a regular basis—but this increased quality time is also flecked with small, snide comments and a stuffy English inaffection. Her mother’s precious pack of distinguished hounds and her recent ceramics obsession often dominate space and conversation, leaving little room for meaningful interactions with her daughter. However, there is also a concerted effort on Hogg’s part to present a more thorough portrait of Julie—in lieu of recollection largely relegating her to the role of wronged victim, Part II is interested in uncovering her imperfect impulses and complexes—her transactional familial ties and sheltered naivete among them.
As opposed to solely sticking with Hogg’s trademark style of crafting narratives by way of simple outlines and leaning on improvisation, Part II has several other moving parts propelling it: There’s the linear progression of Julie helming her thesis, the re-creation of scenes from the first Souvenir in Julie’s film, dreamlike interpolations of frames from Part I, and even the visually diverse work of Julie’s filmmaking peers. All of these elements seamlessly play off of one another—the transitions between these facets are always fluid and intentional—yet they also serve as a direct counter to the viewer’s preconceived impressions of Julie and those surrounding her. Akin to how Julie is able to see the red flags and flaws of her and Anthony’s relationship in hindsight, the viewer is able to encounter Julie’s shifting perspective on her own faults as the film’s production advances. Looking back on the relationship reconstructed through Julie’s eyes, there exists an even deeper recognition of her own shortcomings in regards to Anthony—she never confronted him, made excuses for him, apologized for him. This unraveling is not without initial discomfort: When Julie casts her classmate Garance (Ariane Labed) in the lead role, the actress cannot even begin to comprehend Julie’s character. She reads the script, inquiring aloud as to how this woman could allow such mistreatment and believe incredulous lies, going so far as declaring the film inauthentic. ”It’s what happened,” Julie softly asserts, though not without a meek air of embarrassed reflection.
Nonetheless, the frank words of those on the periphery of Julie’s relationship tandemly fuel the pursuit of portraying her truth while instilling her with the courage to investigate Anthony’s seemingly secret life. It’s evident that the five-year span detailed in Part II is a vital period of honest healing for Julie, though she ignores the depths of her emotions concerning the issue at first. Her film begins as a way to utilize an undeniably harrowing experience in order to make an artistic impression—the unknowable strife of manual laborers clearly too complex for affluent Julie to feign expertise on. In the end, as Julie celebrates her 30th birthday, the completion of the cinematic venture marks the director’s first beguiling moments of actualized adulthood.
The undertaking of the two-part Souvenir project is also an exercise in molding memory into perception, of taking nearly unrecognizable fragments of the self and understanding how that person has both changed and remained. As a standalone film, The Souvenir provides Hogg with the means to articulate and meditate on her past, creating a work that is bleakly beautiful and enchanting all on its own. Yet without the metatextual revisions presented in The Souvenir Part II, the intimate truth of the situation would remain obscured—surely among audiences, but perhaps even to Hogg herself.
Director: Joanna Hogg
Writers: Joanna Hogg
Stars: Honor Swinton Byrne, Tilda Swinton, Richard Ayoade, Charlie Heaton, Harris Dickinson, Ariana Labed
Release Date: October 29, 2021 (A24)
Natalia Keogan is a freelance film writer based in Queens, New York. Her work has been featured in Paste Magazine, Blood Knife Magazine and Filmmaker Magazine, among others. Find her on Twitter @nataliakeogan