CURATORS' CHOICE 2021:
THE SOUVENIR PART II
Saturday, January 1, 2022, 6:30 p.m.
United Kingdom. 2021, 106 mins. DCP. Directed and written by Joanna Hogg. Produced by Ed Guiney, Joanna Hogg, Andrew Lowe, Emma Norton, Luke Schiller. Cinematography by David Raedeker. Edited by Helle le Fevre. Production design by Stéphane Collonge. With Honor Swinton Byrne, Tilda Swinton, Jaygann Ayeh, Richard Ayoade, Ariane Labed.
Review by Chloe Lizotte, Reverse Shot, October 29, 2021
When the camera sneaks up on film student Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne) scribbling a screenplay in a plush tea lounge, Joanna Hogg makes it feel like a memory. Julie was in this room in the first installment of The Souvenir (2019), a chronicle of her romance with the enigmatic and duplicitous Anthony (Tom Burke). Though this room was a frequent date spot for the couple, Hogg’s sequel to The Souvenir finds Julie seated alone, perhaps returning for the first time after his sudden heroin overdose at the conclusion of Part I. Hogg holds on the back of Julie’s head, the same way that Julie first glimpsed Anthony at a party. Now, Julie solidly occupies the center of gravity.
The Souvenir: Part II might most succinctly be described as a continuation of Julie’s self-actualization, but it builds on its predecessor in sophisticated ways. Hogg has said that the sequel can stand alone, and that may be true—it’s a pleasurable film to watch and has a more extroverted sense of momentum than the first—but these almost noirish visual callbacks instill ghostly memories that, over time, transcend the ectoplasm of one person or film. Julie is both haunted by Anthony’s absence and irrevocably moving forward in her own life, which sharpens the importance of everything she never knew about him, and now, will never know about him (even his parents are unsure if Anthony actually held a job in the Foreign Office). As Julie processes her grief for Anthony through her thesis film, Hogg doesn’t suggest that the project will represent the end of the grieving process, but that it can capture something fuzzier about their relationship and Anthony’s loss. In ways that reflect back on its director as much as on Julie, Part II is about being too close to this loss to grasp it emotionally while yearning for the distance to clearly describe it. As Anthony indelibly said to Julie in the first chapter, “We want to see life as it is experienced in this soft machine”—a line which Julie rephrases to defend her film in Part II.
Julie and Anthony’s relationship is a retelling of Hogg’s own first love, which she recreated in the first Souvenir down to a nearly pointillist detailed replica of her film-school apartment. But, by eschewing a script for prose descriptions of scenes and diary excerpts, Hogg allowed her actors to be organic and loose within the framework of her memories. Even if Julie was Hogg’s stand-in, there would always be a bit of distance between filmmaker and character. As Julie meets with Anthony’s friends and family during the first half of Part II, she goes through a similar process, trying to reconcile who he was outside of their relationship with her memories of him. The muted shocks of the first film arose from a naïveté on Julie’s part, especially when Anthony’s manipulative side was so obvious—it seemed unbelievable that she would forgive him for ransacking her apartment, or that she accepted that his track marks were snake bites, or that she continued to give him pocket money, borrowed from her parents, without questioning him. That dynamic spoke to Julie’s closeness to the situation, her self-protective denial of who he was beyond her.
As Julie recovers from his passing at her aristocratic parents’ country estate, her scenes are bookended by the flowers in their garden, symbols of “blossoming” that are both comfortingly straightforward and too simplistic for what Julie is going through. Despite the support of Julie’s parents—James Spencer Ashworth and Tilda Swinton, who is Swinton-Byrne’s real mother and the star of Hogg’s own thesis film— the quietude at home is stifling, a reflexive repression in their wealthy milieu that Hogg charted in her earlier features. Julie is restless as this emotional gulf widens; she gets frustrated when she can’t impart the nuances of frictions at film school, but still relies on them for financial backing after her advisers, displeased that she’s abandoning her original concept about working-class Sunderland, refuse to fund her project. As Julie looks inward to heal, though, she has to widen her perspective again: in fits and starts, she starts to see her parents as, well, people. In a scene that is heart-stopping because it is so plainly shot, Julie accidentally lets a ceramic sugar pot, the very first fruit of her mother’s art class, slip off the mantle and shatter to bits. Through the staccato, Pinter-esque niceties that follow, it’s clear that Julie’s mother is trying to brush off the symbolism of the pot—she signed up for the art class inspired by both Julie’s interest in film and her independence to pursue it, a marker of their generation gap. The ceramic piece is just an object, but its breakability is a reminder of the deliberate care that even familial relationships require. When Julie glimpses her mother across their garden later, the older woman is lost in thought, but Julie doesn’t interrupt her moment of privacy. A peculiar estrangement happens when seeing a parent for the first time through young-adult eyes, seeming a bit older and more fragile.
In the logistical morass of Julie’s film set, she’s tasked with interpreting her grief clearly enough to direct others through it. Much like Hogg, Julie tries to recreate her relationship with Anthony exactly as it was within a diorama of her apartment. Sensing a spark of something authentic, Julie casts her French producer (Ariane Labed) in the lead role regardless of her lack of acting experience—Swinton Byrne was similarly asked to act for the first time in The Souvenir, in addition to the meta implications of performing alongside her mother. The actor Julie casts as Anthony, Pete (Harris Dickinson, the outstanding lead of Eliza Hittman’s Beach Rats), seems both a physical and emotional mismatch, sensitive with open eyes as opposed to Anthony’s roguish smirk—perhaps evincing the gap between the way Julie perceived Anthony and the way a secondhand observer might. As the actors probe Julie about their characters’ motivations, there’s a clash between what actually took place and how audiences might expect the couple to interact. After Anthony’s analog passes out in the bathroom, for instance, Julie maintains that the incident wouldn’t be verbally addressed. There is something about Anthony and Julie’s relationship that always defied logic: the fact that Julie was too blinded by youth and love, and communicatively impaired by her sheltered upbringing, to see Anthony’s manipulative, troubled side for what it was. So, Julie is steadfast as she tries to preserve this complexity in her actors; it’s what made the first film so compelling.
In the first film, Anthony always seemed to be shoehorning Julie into a different era, especially in the rococo fashions of a heavily chiaroscuro, opera-dominated jaunt to Italy. But Part II anchors us in Julie’s mid-’80s present with assertive song cues from Nico and Talk Talk—all cut off abruptly mid-song, another distancing effect that ruptures a nostalgic escape. This time around, Julie has an understated confidence as she gamely fields the barrage of crosstalk on set. She strives to reconcile technical conversations about camera placement with the complicated emotional heart of the piece—not always perfectly, as her DP flares up at her when she changes her mind about a lighting setup. Despite the messiness of her grief, Julie also more decisively throws herself into her personal life when she hooks up with an actor (Charlie Heaton) early in the film, allowing some sort of release even if she admits to her therapist that she’s not ready for a new relationship. Without Anthony, though, Julie is in the driver’s seat: all of her supporting characters at film school insist that Julie should trust her instincts, and in an exquisitely tender conversation with her editor (Joe Alwyn), he encourages her not to be too hard on herself as she figures out how to move forward. It often feels as if Hogg is trying to reassure Julie, but instead of self-indulgence, it comes across like the kindness we might afford to someone younger: don’t take on the entire world.
Fan-favorite returning character Patrick (Richard Ayoade, who would deserve a knighthood for his role on Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace alone) is perhaps the film’s most surprising foil for Julie. Seeking to speak with someone who knew Anthony well, Julie visits the egocentric filmmaker on the set of his bombastic new musical, which he hopes will be cutting-edge but deeply British in a way that should evoke Derek Jarman’s punk phase, although the result doesn’t quite hit the mark. Patrick is histrionic with his crew and a clearly difficult collaborator, and Hogg plays him up as a comedic force of nature—a highlight being the contemptuous pause Patrick drags out while remarking that he doesn’t want to make “something you watch midweek with your . . . uncle.” But his driving desire is sympathetic, even noble: to make a genuinely moving film that won’t easily fade from memory. It’s easy to laugh at Patrick’s high drama until the scenes where Julie, a much humbler personality, tries to diplomatically arrange the chaos of her own set into an emotionally precise statement. She’s not about to get ejected from her edit like Patrick, but she still needs to balance the concerns with her crew with an internal sense of what’s right for the film—and do so in a way that isn’t self-enclosed. In the same way, it could seem solipsistic for Hogg to so directly mine her own life, but her film is far from closed-off: it’s about how subjectivity widens with maturity. Her meta-cinematic edge is also traditionally associated with titanic male auteurs. In one of the film’s slyest callouts, Hogg has Patrick cite Martin Scorsese as an important inspiration—who, in real life, executive-produced both parts of The Souvenir. John Cassavetes was the one who encouraged Scorsese to pivot to a more personal mode of filmmaking through Mean Streets, the true breakthrough in his career. Perhaps it takes Hogg, Anthony’s memory, and even Patrick to convince Julie to do the same, much like Julie compelled her mother to try pottery.
It’s also true that Hogg’s filmmaking, which reverberates with a youthful sense of possibility, bears some of Julie’s influence. When Julie screens her thesis film, we don’t see the project she was filming, but a dream-sequence–style hybrid starring Swinton Byrne and Burke. Julie revives Anthony’s spirit as she chases him through some hefty cinematic haunted houses: delirious homages to Anthony’s self-professed favorite filmmakers Powell & Pressburger, and a truly inspired reworking of the Citizen Kane mirror scene, wherein Julie’s mother holds up a death-mask with Anthony’s face on it. Hogg pushes the meta element even further in a direct quotation of her film-school thesis, Caprice. Her short was a playful, Carroll-esque story of a young woman (Swinton, so early in her career that she is billed as “Matilda”) stuck inside of a fashion magazine, rendered as a Technicolor explosion of music and comedy—suffice it to say, a different style from the unhurried long takes of Hogg’s features. Instead of Swinton gazing upon a neon lightbox of the Interview-esque cover of Caprice, Swinton Byrne here contemplates the 18th-century painting that gives The Souvenir its name; while Julie saw melancholy in Fragonard’s depiction of a woman carving her lover’s initials into a tree, Anthony saw evidence of her belief in their romance. The sequence is astonishing and refreshingly non-literal, both a parting gift for Anthony and emblematic of how Julie has internalized their time together.
It might be unexpected that Hogg, known for the naturalism of her portraits of the British upper-class, has made something like her own 8 ½. But The Souvenir: Part II turns her observational eye, so lucidly analytical about class and character, onto Julie’s experiences. When the camera pulls back to reveal Hogg’s own crew at the conclusion of the film, it’s a reminder that the version of Julie’s apartment we understood as “real” is—obviously—also the very replica that Hogg created, the same soundstage angle she used while filming Julie’s film-school set. The illusion breaks, but then again, this haze of memory can’t be bound by four plywood walls.
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