The Souvenir: Part II

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The Souvenir: Part II makes sense of Part I, which seems like an obvious thing to say. But some sequels genuinely are sequels (The Godfather: Part II), fleshing out and adding to the original. Others are merely retellings of a story that’s already been told (The Matrix Reloaded). Joanna Hogg’s film fits into a third camp, of sequels whose purpose can only be understood as a part of a whole. Which is a long-winded way of saying that if you didn’t quite go the massive appreciative bundle on Part I, as many in the commentariat did, Part II might finally convince you.

A refresher: the story is essentially Hogg’s own, of going to film school and finding herself in thrall to a dangerous charming man called Anthony (played by Tom Burke in the first film and glimpsed in flashback again here), who turns out to be a junkie, with tragic consequences.

Part II takes up the where Part I left off, with Julie (as Hogg’s avatar, played by Honor Swinton Byrne) recovering from the trauma of her relationship, dusting herself down and starting all over again by setting out to make her graduation film, which turns out to be all about a doomed relationship with a wildly charismatic man. Hey ho.

So, in a sense, the student film is The Souvenir: Part I all over again, which is not just a novelty but also – as things start to fractal into infinity – an indicator of how deeply the relationship affected Hogg.

As Jule makes her film (and Hogg makes hers), along the way some scores are settled. With the sexy but obviously exploitative Anthony most obviously. With various “types” of film folk who may be still students but their dies seem already cast. The handsome actor who thinks he can have whoever he wants, because he can, nicely played in wham-bam fashion by Charlie Heaton. The up-himself director who’s all “my art” and “my process”, a return by Richard Ayoade. The lighting cameraman who oversteps the mark. The friend and actress who automatically assumes she’s going to be cast. She isn’t. The film school’s senior staff, who tell Julie she’ll never get anywhere making a film that is obviously precisely the sort of film that Hogg has made a career out of – see Unrelated, Archipelago and Exhibition – because she has no real script.

Julie's parents William and Rosalind
Meet the parents: William and Rosalind

But that’s how Julie wants to do it, and how Hogg works. The actors get some instruction as to what the scene contains, a bit like the way a “scripted reality” TV show operates, at some level, and then Julie/Hogg leaves them to get on with it. This necessitates a certain style of shooting – long takes, fairly static camera, unfussy (if any) lighting.

It works every time, in terms of squeezing something out of her characters that might not come otherwise. Hogg’s films are full of people struggling not to say the thing that should be said, or vice versa.

For fun Hogg throws in some half-hearted genre pastiche – glimpses of other students’ films, a dream sequence – to show she can make “proper” films, and some classically beautiful Ozu-like pillow shots of trees in blossom and flowers dappling backlit meadows, to show she can do that too.

The entire thing is, in a way, a tongue-out justification of her “process”. And as the film progresses, The Souvenir: Part II becomes more about film-making, and its collaborative nature, than it is about Julie’s journey back to wellness, though they go hand in hand.

Good cast. Tilda Swinton (mother of Honor Swinton Byrne) and James Spencer Ashworth as Julie’s one-notch-below-nobility parents and Ariane Labed and Harris Dickinson as the actors who play out Julie and Anthony’s doomed story in Julie’s graduation film. Again, things start to fractal off into infinity.

Cineaste bolthole Sight and Sound magazine loved it to the point of calling it the film of the 2021. To an extent that’s understandable. This is a film that’s not just about film-making but also about the importance of cinema (in a streaming world that’s a hard corner to fight). But don’t let an arthouse imprimatur put you off watching it. Static and subtle The Souvenir: Part II might be, but it’s also entirely gripping, an exercise in deferring the gratification of closure to the point where the sensation becomes exquisite.

The Souvenir: Part II – watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2022

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