Director: Joanna Hogg
Stars: Honor Swinton Byrne, Jaygann Ayeh, Ariane Labed
Joanna Hogg’s openly autobiographical The Souvenir detailed a young filmmaker’s furtive encounters at art college in Britain in the 1980s, and her volatile relationship with a closet junkie; a relationship that culminated in tragedy. That film ended on the vast door of a soundstage opening and Hogg’s facsimile, Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne), looking out at newly visible horizons. Even if the end credits hadn’t juicily alluded to a second part to come, it was a moment of fertile promise.
A little over two years later and here we are. Picking up exactly where we left off, Julie is initially catalogued in a mire of grief from the loss of Anthony (Tom Burke). Rudderless, she decamps to the family homestead, spends time with her mother (real life mum Tilda Swinton), and starts mustering strength to prepare her graduating piece. Having previously toyed with the decaying Sunderland docks as her far-flung inspiration Julie instead decides to exorcise her recent past, creating a memorial to Anthony made up of experiences culled from her own life.
There’s a layering of reality happening here as Hogg conjures a film about making The Souvenir, as well as her own faltering first steps. Hogg doesn’t self-aggrandise. Quite the opposite. She shows Julie failing to make decisions as her inexperienced crew grapple with their undisciplined lead. She has Julie overhear criticism and struggle to take it on board. The Souvenir Part II feels nakedly reflective of a time in Hogg’s own life when she perhaps lacked the confidence as a filmmaker that she has subsequently found.
This self-awareness – and particularly this layering of reality – becomes a conversation that Hogg actively has with her audience in the final act when Julie’s piece is complete and everyone is taking their seats on opening night. Here what we’re treated to is not the finished product of all those weeks of toil; we’ve already experienced it piecemeal so what would be the point of that? Instead, Hogg unveils one of the boldest sequences in a career defined by her muted approach to naturalism.
Harking back to Hogg’s own debut short Caprice, Julie pirouettes through a variety of stylised sets and scenarios as though spiralling through the pages of a fashion magazine. She goes on a journey from losing Anthony to finding herself – and her camera – again. All the while dancing through the tropes and trappings of earnest student filmmaking (if you don’t find some of the tilts to Lynch or Fellini humorous then you may be missing the joke). For Hogg, it’s an uncanny stylistic explosion, especially coming some three-and-a-half hours into this relatively restrained story. It’s nearest equivalent is the dance sequence in Powell & Pressburger’s The Red Shoes. It’s that much of a showstopper.
The Souvenir Part II becomes not just one of the greatest films about the process of filmmaking made in recent times, but possibly the greatest film about the motivations behind filmmaking made in recent times. Hogg shows us how Julie (and by extension, one assumes, her earlier self) uses cinema as a medium for self-discovery and therapy. Julie calls her piece a memorial to Anthony, but it equally serves as a processing mechanism for her own turmoil and grief. And, in creating art that can be shared with the world, she transforms this effort from a selfish act to generous one. Trying to justify her idea to the art school board who look on it with skepticism, Julie tells them that her hope is that her audience will recognise some element of truth about their own lives. That her work will, in short, connect.
The Souvenir and The Souvenir Part II have come under fire in some circles for depicting a very privileged view of British life. It’s true that Julie comes from a wealthy background and, whenever a problem presents itself, she turns to the trusty Bank of Mum & Dad. Not everyone wanting to make movies is so fortunate, granted. But Hogg acknowledges the strengths and weaknesses of Julie’s class and expects us to recognise that – irrespective – she is a woman struggling.
Hogg has taken the idioms and pettiness of the middle class to task in her work before (Unrelated, Archipelago). That’s not the point this time around. And still, regardless of class, Hogg shows us – yet again – her brilliant ear for dialogue and her eye for setting. When Julie’s father William (James Spencer Ashworth) utters the phrase, “worse things happen at sea” over a broken knickknack, Hogg opens up a lockbox of who that character is, how he thinks and where he’s from in British culture. An uncanny level of truth and observation all within one throwaway line. And then there’s the way she remembers Britain in the ’80s; a drab place filled with browns and beiges (a far cry from the misty-eyed electric blue nostalgia that so many seem to codify). Along with her pitch-perfect ear for source music, she shows a sensibility almost unmatched on the world stage when it comes to evocation.
With Martin Scorsese on board as an executive producer (as he was previously), The Souvenir Part II is a cineaste’s movie made by cineastes. Where the first film was primarily about a romantic relationship destined for heartache, the love affair here is with the moving image. Richard Aoyade’s scene-stealing prima donna Patrick may be one of Hogg’s most outré characters, but his passion for his obviously-doomed musical is as riotously enjoyable as it is filled with the same truth that exists all over this picture. An over-the-top clown he may be, but he’s an addict in the same way Julie is. The same addiction that pulls legions of real-life people – Hogg included – into a collaborative industry of long hours, hard work and constant uncertainty. The same addiction that pulls hoards of punters into movie multiplexes and indie cinemas, even as a pandemic rages on. The addiction of cinema and the moving image. Lies to tell the truth.