The Souvenir Part II (2021)

Joanna Hogg | 1hr 46min

It isn’t long after Anthony’s death that Joanna Hogg picks Julie’s story back up in The Souvenir Part II. If its precursor was an examination of her first love, then this counterpoints that with a thoughtful study of her first major loss, and with a significantly larger emphasis on the young director’s professional life, the parallels between both women are closer than ever. We see the comparison in Julie’s efforts to make a film inspired by her troubled relationship with Anthony, but we also witness it in her increased confidence and emotional insight. Perhaps this mental shift is a result of Anthony’s influence beyond death, but it may just as well be her own messy, existentialist grief that gives way to such rich character development. Like the flowers we open on and frequently cut away to in her mother’s garden, she is still learning and maturing, gradually becoming the person that Hogg is today.

Julia’s family house and garden become the new settings to Hogg’s home scenes, dispensing with the modern apartment of the first film to make way for a quainter aesthetic.

It is harder to parse The Souvenir Part II out from its predecessor in terms of style though, as Hogg remains remarkably consistent in her use of static wide shots dramatically narrowed by interior corridors and doorways to build oppressive frames around her characters. Perhaps the greatest visual shift here though is in location – there is no feasible way Julie can continue living in that apartment that is so full of Anthony’s overbearing presence. When she first returns to it, idly touching its walls and furniture, the space feels like a foreign world she no longer belongs to. It is her parents’ large home in the countryside to which she escapes, and its nourishing green gardens where we see her at her calmest.

Film sets turned cinematic – superb framing in doorways and mirrors as Julie enters this shoot.

The organic rapport between Honor Swinton Byrne and her real-life mother, Tilda Swinton, is even more present in Part II with the increased time they spend simply talking through their heartache. The latter gets a particular affecting scene in which she speaks of experiencing love and pain through her daughter, offering a soothing presence to an ensemble that is otherwise full of hyper-critical film students and professors. Richard Ayoade is back once again and is thankfully given even more screen time than the first film as Patrick, a delightfully hipster filmmaker whose response to Julie’s positive feedback to his direction is a flippant “That’s marvellously generic.”

Though the challenges of film school are still present, there is a distinct contrast between the way Julie pursues her creative ideas between both films, and it is especially notable in her discussions with university mentors. While they savagely pick at her script for its messy presentation and threaten to withdraw the school’s support, she speaks with a more direct passion than we have seen before. Perhaps the lack of precision they accuse her of is a result of her own chaotic state of mind following on from Anthony’s death, but even then, there is still a fresh self-assuredness to Swinton Byrne’s line deliveries.

On set, Julie aggravates crew members by deciding in the last second to change the camera’s placement, offends old collaborators in choosing not to cast them in her project, and patiently weathers complaints that she doesn’t know what she is doing. Hogg’s dialogue is entirely true to the realism of the piece in these scenes, overlapping characters trying to be heard in the heat of arguments and delivering the sort of amusingly ego-driven conflicts recognisable to anyone who has been on a film set.

A strong composition when Julie first meets Jim, another director and one-time fling.

As troubled as Julie’s film production is, it also acts as a healing process, helping her work through her memories of Anthony and questions of how much a problematic person should be venerated after their death. In basing a character directly off him though, Julie runs up against the difficulty of giving his actor an idea of who he really was, rather than her concept of him. Perhaps to address this tension between fiction and reality, Hogg denies showing us the products of Julie’s efforts on the night of her film’s premier. Instead, she digs deep into the fantasy and plays out the purest representation of her mind that she could not bring to the screen – a surreal collage of dreamlike settings, costumes, and symbols that she runs through, while Anthony’s words echo in voiceover. Within this break from the film’s reality where hallways of mirrors lead her through a dark funhouse, Hogg hits on cinematic gold, deconstructing her own artistic and grieving processes by merging them into a singular representation and naming it The Souvenir.

Stunning, surreal imagery in this short film within a film, also titled The Souvenir. Costumes changes and sound stages shift from scene to scene, loaded with symbols.

Up until the very last scene of Part II, there is still the question of whether Hogg would consider building on Julie’s story further with another sequel. If we were to compare the final seconds of both parts though, it is evident that there is far more closure here. Not necessarily because of the characters or narrative, which could theoretically keep spinning out beyond Julie’s university years, but because of Hogg’s pointed decision to move her camera beyond the walls of the soundstage upon which it is shot. This Brechtian swing at the fourth wall is far removed from anything we saw in the first film, and yet in Part II’s meditations on cinema as a filter through which reality is processed, it feels like a strangely natural conclusion. That the actual painting The Souvenir only makes a brief appearance here is negligible – the actual “souvenir” in question emerges from the memories we wish to hold onto, and the loving mementos that are crafted from their remnants.

Julie turning her camera to Anthony, but also Hogg’s own camera – a meta moment of self-reflection.

The Souvenir Part II is currently playing in theatres.

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