The Souvenir Part II (2021)

There’s a shot in Joanna Hogg’s 2019 autobiographical arthouse hit The Souvenir – the final image – that shows the main character Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne) walking through a huge set of movie soundstage into the daylight. It marked a sense of closure, of moving on from the tragic and formative events of that film. But it also highlighted the artifice, that everything we had been watching was a recreation.

It turns out that this closing scene prefigures the central theme of recreation in Hogg’s much-anticipated sequel, a film that is as much a remix of the first film’s events as it is a direct chronological sequel. Precariously balanced and daringly self-indulgent, it’s a hall of mirrors like the endless reflections in a scene in Julie’s graduate film.

Set immediately after the tragic death of Julie’s complex boyfriend Anthony by heroin overdose, The Souvenir Part II shows the aspiring and insouciantly young student filmmaker trying to understand her grief by recreating her doomed romance in her final year film project, jettisoning her original concept of a fashionably patronising poverty-porn portrayal of Sunderland docks.

Harris Dickinson as Paul acting as Anthony in The Souvenir Part II

The layers are everywhere – Julie selects the actors to play the fictional versions of herself and Anthony; and Swinton Byrne and Tom Burke respectively play Hogg as a student and her boyfriend. In The Souvenir, Julie’s expensive Knightsbridge flat was a precise studio recreation of Hogg’s own student home, and in turn the set for the first film is a construction on a sound stage, surrounded by monitors, stagehands and cameras. The artifice is reminiscent of Almodovar’s short The Human Voice when that film’s protagonist (also Tilda Swinton) strolls out of the sumptuously decorated flat to reveal it as a plywood set in a studio.

Julie also examines her relationship and her grief by trying to understand Antony through other people, by visiting Anthony’s parents, and the residents of the council-estate smackhouse where Anthony got his fixes (and perhaps even lived?). She even asks her mother how she felt when she heard the news of the death, which is echoed straight back when Rosalind says she experienced the sadness through her daughter. It’s as if Julie is questioning her own perspective of the events.

The film doesn’t shy away from Julie’s (and Hogg’s) financial privilege. With the film school refusing to fund such an indistinct project, Julie instead chooses to fund it privately, borrowing the money from her mother (£100,000, an eyewatering amount to borrow today, let alone in the late 1980s). And Hogg’s script intimates a sense of closure by Julie repaying a portion of it, again not an insignificant sum.

Tilda Swinton has a larger role here as Julie’s supportive and sympathetic mother. Yet Julie arrogantly diminishes her mother’s emerging pottery hobby, a modest creative outlet of her own, which deftly illustrate Julie’s painful lack of self-awareness and sense of importance. Hogg and the actors make the interplay between mother and daughter understated and refined, so much that a most minor of household accident yields an emotional resonance that’s all the more painful because the reaction is politely and gracefully muted.

Of the rest of the cast, Richard Ayoade stands out in particular. His brief role in part one was a highlight and Hogg wisely enlarges his part in this sequel, having become a very funny caricature of the pretentious and self-absorbed young film student.

Richard Ayoade as Patrick in The Souvenir Part II

As befitting her self-importance, Julie’s completed film project is a mild disappointment, neither terrible nor original, a clumsy imitation of a Powell and Pressburger fantasy, with derivative stylistic echoes of A Matter of Life and Death or The Red Shoes. Julies’s project has become a kind of cinematic souvenir of her tragic relationship with Anthony, blending fantasy and truthfulness, just as Anthony himself created an elaborate fiction to disguise his problems from Julie. A little naive and on-the-nose, perhaps, but exactly the sort of student film we could imagine Julie creating.

Of course, like its predecessor, The Souvenir Part II is part-autobiographical and this adds yet another layer of semi-reality to a film that layers fiction and truth. Hogg seems to be reflecting on the experiences of her own twenty-something self, just as Julie is using film to reflect on her own experiences. It’s a delicate balancing act, and a successful one. The Souvenir Part II is more immediately engaging than the more austere, liminal original; the characters are more fleshed out and there’s more humour. But the complex and self-referential layering will inevitably make it less accessible and is likely to face accusations of self-absorption.

And it is self-absorbed, just as Julie herself is, and that I think is partly the point. It’s a fascinating exploration of personal creativity and artistic expression with all its ego, risks, pitfalls and naivety. Its faceted mirroring of the original add richness and meaning to the first film to a point where it’s now impossible to see one without reflecting on the other.

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