“A reflexive art piece that deftly takes us into the emotions and motivations that comprise its own creation.”
by Ken Bakely
In some way, Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir Part II feels like it is a prerequisite of its 2019 predecessor. That semi-autobiographical film told the tale of Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne), a young film student in 1980s London, and her tumultuous, troubled relationship with Anthony, a secretive older man, who eventually dies from a drug overdose. Now, we arrive at the sequel, which jumps forward to the end of the decade and sees Julie preparing to make her final film school project, about the relationship, and of course called The Souvenir. It follows this fictional project’s creation and, more broadly, the beginning of its protagonist’s life as a filmmaker, all through the lens of evaluating the impact of her own recent, personal history. If the first movie asked questions about how an artist recollects, the sequel asks how recollections become art. Hogg’s approach is even more obviously about peeling back layers of memories, filtered through personal analysis and affectation, toying with how these moments form and cascade in the mind. Though with a decidedly meta angle atop it all, Part II is no less powerful, immediate, and tightly controlled than The Souvenir, and in fact, makes the whole enterprise seem that much more impressive: these are two puzzle pieces that interlock, their carefully cut, jagged edges fitting together to give each creation deeper meaning as a whole.
In tandem, the two parts present a multifaceted and sweeping look at how its protagonist processes these events in her life, both internally and externally, and often in ways that, much like in real life, seem caught between the two: our influences, those amorphous things that seep through our psyches, can’t be kept solely within our thoughts or throughout our actions. They’re not extensions of us, they’re a part of us. Here, Hogg makes this more clear than ever before – it’s not about Julie wanting to make a film, it’s about how she has to do it. Much is made about the challenges of being a director – especially in one’s debut project – but Julie’s struggles, in grappling with her past and how to reconcile it in her present, runs far deeper and elemental. Honor Swinton Byrne is as great as ever in this role, examining these indistinct, liminal spaces while considering how the character will grow and change through the course of the film. She deals with some new people in her life – actors, crew members, fellow film students (Richard Ayoade has rightfully gotten raves for his turn as a particularly wound-up wannabe auteur) – while some characters also recur from the first installment, such as Julie’s mother (played here once again by Swinton Byrne’s real life mother, Tilda Swinton). But still, no one lingers more hauntingly than Anthony, as Julie tries to learn more about who he really was, for her work and for herself.
The Souvenir Part II continues to study Julie’s thoughts and feelings at a practically molecular level, with David Raedeker’s smoky cinematography seeking to emphasize the fog of the moment, and Hogg’s cuts from the action to more abstract imagery – nature, typically – similar to choices she made in the first installment, seems to emphasize a worldview, still disoriented, looking for solid ground. This is an enrapturing viewing experience, with profound personal investigation still held at a deliberate length, making it more about the procedure than the destination. Hogg eventually takes us to the premiere of Julie’s The Souvenir, but she does not show it – she shows what could best be described as the slew of imaginations and recollections that inspired it, in a gorgeous and disquieting parade of quasi-surreal imagery. It’s perhaps the film’s greatest sign of the close, but careful distinction it makes between creativity and creation: Hogg shows creativity – the drive to make this – as a very corporeal, literal feeling that matter-of-factly drives the character; but shows the actual creation – what ends up resulting – as a highly metaphorical one, not as easily quantified.
But of course, this is a movie far too nuanced to treat even that as some steely binary. All of this comes together as one in a final scene – no, a final shot – that states the movie’s entire thesis without an extra word uttered. My initial reaction, in the immediacy of the moment, was that it seemed almost extraneous: Hogg is so precise that it almost felt like she didn’t need to add a final exclamation point, taking these ideas and translating them to a more direct bit of visual language. But considering it further, I realized that the sequence reaches beyond its immediate buildup in its surrounding moments, and becomes a simultaneously fluid and comprehensive comment on what this entire two-part saga has been about. Taken as a whole, with both Souvenir films in stride, it’s a stunning final statement. And yes, it can still be re-applied once more: you can use it as a summary on what makes Part II so astonishing as a whole, closing some loops while leaving others open, and ruminating with great authority on both its protagonist’s journey and its own existence as a reflexive art piece that deftly takes us into the emotions and motivations that comprise its own creation.