Following 2019’s critically acclaimed debut The Souvenir, Joanna Hogg follows up with her semi-autobiographical tale distributed by A24. A memoir of a young, ambitious film student, Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne) whose career is very nearly derailed by a disastrous relationship with an older man, it’s as much an indictment of the double-standards afforded to men and to women as it is an exploration of the fragile film production industry. This review contains spoilers for The Souvenir Part I and The Souvenir Part II, so please read at your discretion.
The Souvenir Part II
Director: Joanna Hogg
Release date: October 16, 2021 (LFF)
By the end of the first instalment of The Souvenir, a lot of questions remained about Julie as a character, and about her future without the strong, almost controlling influence of Anthony (Tom Burke) in her life. In this chapter, Julie is in her final year of film school and approaching the project of her graduation film. Although her tutors are less-than enthusiastic about her pursuit, she’s now dropped the idea of a film documenting working-class Sunderland and instead veers more towards the lover she has lost.
Tutors and peers were always encouraging her to ‘draw on her own experience’, and while she resents the idea of staying in a privileged bubble between her flat in Knightsbridge in London and her comfortable home life, she now uses the past 12 months to her advantage and produces her feature.
It’s not all roses, of course. Young and inexperienced, she struggles to direct her team of students, resulting in arguments, tempers and tantrums from the crew. But Julie is clear in her ideas, even if she can’t articulate them fully at the early stage. Her personality jars with some of the more outspoken students: Richard Ayoade’s character is utterly awful, but you love to hate him. He should be awarded for the best delivery in the film during feedback from a shoot: “You’re forcing me to have a tantrum!”
Nevertheless, Julie is undeterred. Her parents are both dedicated and supportive, as far as they can be from their rural home, and the process of returning to her childhood and walking through meadows around her house is not only filmed beautifully but show how she is healing. It is another sympathetic portrayal of family life from her real-life mother, Tilda Swindon, contributes to the feeling that this is verité filmmaking. There is also a gentle sub-plot involving her mother’s artistic pursuits through ceramics classes, observing the process of producing something small and unremarkable but of great personal significance, which resonates with Julie and her film project.
It seems that the film project is what’s keeping Julie afloat and with a direction in life, but she explains to a therapist that she’s experiencing a cognitive dissonance. She wants to move on, but can’t decipher whether or not she misses Anthony as a person, or the idea of intimacy and companionship with someone. As the astute counsellor advises: only she is the one with the power to make changes in her life.
There are subtle criticisms of the way she is treated as a woman, an arts student: her father questions her, concerned that she’s receiving no professional direction for the project. I’ll admit, at times I felt the story we were seeing played out to be a little repetitive and slow, but the high point of the narrative is the screening of her film on graduation.
Rather than see what she’s painstakingly worked towards, we actually see a fantasy version of a film, replaying images, sound clips and memories from the first Souvenir film. It’s almost like a dream ballet and it feels as though she has used this whole narrative (both diegetic and non) to replay the past, process her response and reconstruct the future. It’s as if the spell Anthony cast over her in life has been dissected and re-spun, so that she now calls the shots and has the power in the relationship.
The final scene shows Julie enjoying a birthday party in her flat, but Hogg unexpectedly breaks the illusion and inserts herself into the film. This technique does all the work by showing that The Souvenir Part II is a film about Julie, who is in turn a projection of Hogg in her younger days. The meta-commentary is both fun and intelligent and seems to let us in on the idea that this is Hogg’s way of processing her own journey. The shots we see of cameras capturing film are in turn captured by cameras, which gives us a way into this world. It’s multi-layered and important to understand the process of filmmaking as self-reinvention, Hogg seems to say.
I will admit I don’t think this film was perfect, and it will largely depend on your enjoyment of the first film. Some may consider it slow and uneventful, and it could be argued that a lot of the discussion between film students feels gratuitous. It also seems inaccessible to a wide audience, very much aimed at film students, those who have lived the process of consuming and making films, and for that reason, I’m unsure it will gain a wide following outside of the existing fanbase for The Souvenir. However, if it’s purely enjoyed as a film and not read as a discourse, then it can be simplified to just the story of a young woman remembering her lover and reflecting on her career, and that’s what makes it compelling.