5 out of 5 stars

Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir (2019) ends with Julie Harte (Honor Swinton Byrne), a burgeoning film student in 1980s London, having just experienced the most earth-shaking tragedy of her life. After falling helplessly in love with a troubled young man named Anthony (Tom Burke)—a heroin addict whose charisma and enigmatic insight first drew her to him, whose deceptive and self-indulgent tendencies briefly drove them apart, and whose addiction led to a relapse that tragically ended in a fatal overdose—she’s completely lost in terms of where her cinematic passions will lead her, and even where she could go as a person seeking intimacy and purpose. She re-enters the world with weary eyes that haven’t been blinded by Anthony’s loss, but rather seem to have been permanently peeled open, forced to see her peers, her parents, her relationships, and above all, herself in the context of this devastating, complicated loss.

And yet, before this story continues, it’s worth mentioning here that an inextricable component of The Souvenir is that it’s a semi-autobiographical film. Julie as a character is a near-exact stand-in for Hogg’s film student self; for one, her apartment in the film is a precise replica set of Hogg’s own during the ’80s, with the views seen through its windows being Hogg’s own 35mm photos from back then, which she projected onto the set’s walls. Even without knowing, though, that Hogg went through a similar relationship with an ‘Anthony’-like partner during her film studies at the National Film and Television School, The Souvenir still is a powerful, gently compassionate, lucidly flowing portrait of flawed love—a tale told through the haze of 16mm and gorgeously sprawling cityscapes, phrased as a series of free-flowing memories that depicts in hypnotic detail both the constantly overlapping beauty and pain of such a difficult first romance.

But Hogg’s act of delving through her past is only further drawn attention to by the inconclusive way The Souvenir ends; Julie finishes another day of shooting her student film in a hangar while still grieving Anthony, stares right at the camera with a sobered expression, and later steps out of the hangar’s enormous open doors into the wide, cloud-soaked skies. The lingering feeling of mild dissatisfaction soon leads to a realization that hits as the credits roll: Julie’s story doesn’t actually end here… because Hogg’s didn’t, either. It continued, in fact, with Hogg making a film titled The Souvenir—a movie about her fraught relationship with a troubled, charismatic, and enigmatic heroin addict, reflected through a powerful, gently compassionate, lucidly flowing portrait of flawed love.

(You can probably guess where this is going.) The end result of that continuation is The Souvenir Part II, which is nothing short of a stunningly moving, wickedly masterful piece of meta-memoir-cinema. Here, Hogg portrays Julie’s creation of her graduation film—also titled The Souvenir, and also an autobiographical film about her doomed romance with Anthony—to directly reveal her own reasons for making Part I: a portrayal that, in turn, unveils genuinely profound truths about the redemptive, therapeutic power of storytelling and filmmaking. Rare is it that a sequel successfully justifies its predecessor’s existence while also amplifying its emotional resonance—even rarer is the film that does so while steadily blurring the line between its director and her main character stand-in. Every step of Julie’s filmmaking journey informs us about the choices Hogg, too, must have made while creating The Souvenir, and witnessing Julie’s luminary ascent towards self-actualization brings with it reminders that Hogg likely experienced the same evolution and catharsis. It’s a candid and moving bond between audience and filmmaker that, for this film specifically, the fourth wall is only obstructing.

After secluding herself in her affluent parents’ house days after Anthony’s death, Julie marks her return to film school by changing her graduation film from a story about an impoverished family in Sunderland to her Souvenir. It’s a decision that draws severe criticism from her professors, who express their concern about the sudden shift in plans and the script’s seemingly meandering, aimless nature—also a frequent criticism from real-life detractors of Hogg’s film. Worth noting here is that even before she begins production, however, her fellow film students and nascent directors—many of whom are returning characters in Part II who made brief appearances in Part I—are all diligently moving along on their own films as well. Most bombastic among them is a musical film directed by Patrick (a splendid Richard Ayoade), who was the first to inform Julie of Anthony’s heroin addiction in Part I and exhibited a snarky fondness for the word “tessellate”—here, he’s a diva-esque, megalomaniacal Orson Welles-aspirant with hopes of making the next great British musical, and Ayoade makes him indelibly fascinating to watch as Julie’s foil.

Julie’s long journey to create The Souvenir is one laden with revelations about Anthony’s history, as well as smaller, practical filmmaking troubles that bog down production whenever they arise. It certainly doesn’t help that as Julie only now begins to process such a devastating loss, her uncertainty and indecisiveness often get the better of her, qualities that draw out the frustration of her cast and crew as they fumble their way through Julie’s issues. After all, the members of Julie’s production are people with their own aspirations and incredibly distinct insights—Garance (Ariane Labed), a fellow film student who takes on the role of Julie, Pete (Harris Dickinson), who plays Anthony, Max (Joe Alwyn), Julie’s sympathetic editor, and Marland (Jaygann Ayeh), her supportive producer—a way for Hogg to draw attention to the network of collaborations at play and the constantly moving pieces that Julie finds herself having to balance on top of faithfully depicting her story.

Indeed, the stress of that frequently proves to be far too much of a burden for her to bear. She’s often found returning to her parents, Rosalind (Tilda Swinton) and William (non-professional James Spencer Ashworth), who prove to be faithfully supportive, even if they still remain unaware, of Julie’s project. It’s in these moments that Byrne and Swinton in particular (who are daughter and mother in real-life) really do shine, as they share multiple strikingly vulnerable moments of parental bonding together all throughout the film. Early on in Part II, when Julie is still lingering in the throes of her grief, Rosalind asks her, “Where’s my sunny little girl?”, a line Swinton delivers with such earnest, sweet concern that you’d be convinced Hogg was covertly filming a real-life talk between the two. And even in the scenes where Julie’s not with her parents, she’s filling the emotional and spiritual hole where Anthony was by having brief flings with other men; something she acknowledges is either the result of her missing Anthony or the intimacy they shared together.

Meanwhile, Julie’s production of her Souvenir seems to deliberately prod at the fourth wall to test its limits, an effect that gradually intensifies in self-referentiality as the film progresses before gorgeously revealing its hand in the film’s final moments. The apartment set Julie’s crew constructs, much like Hogg’s set in Part I, is designed exactly the same as her ‘actual’ apartment, while pieces of furniture like the bed she and Anthony shared together are brought directly to the set to make her recreation of her memories as faithful as possible. Some time afterward, a late-movie encounter with Patrick down some dimly neon-lit street alleys has him asking Julie, “Did you avoid the temptation to be obvious?”, a question that Part I seems to have acquiesced to much like Julie does in her answer, yet one that, as the audience will find out by the time they reach this scene, Part II has done everything in its power to say “no” to. And when Julie’s graduation-film memorial for Anthony eventually gets finished, even the font in which the film’s title is presented is the same as in both Part I and Part II.

It’s details like these that make Hogg’s presence in Part II, even as she remains behind the camera, far more directly felt than in its predecessor—again, at a certain point in the film, it becomes near impossible to separate Julie from Hogg in terms of how her (their?) journey is presented. As a means of painstakingly achieving such an effect, much of Hogg’s real-life crew has returned for Part II as well, but its expanded dimensions compared to Part I seem to have allowed for experimentation in visual presentation and production design. Cinematographer David Raedecker, production designer Stéphane Collogne, and editor Helle le Fevre—already a formidable team in Part I with the austere composition of the film’s 1.66:1 cinematography and dream-like pacing—now get to have some fun with different film formats and aspect ratios by introducing Julie and her peers’ film projects.

Patrick’s musical, for instance, takes on a 2.35:1 widescreen aspect ratio that captures all of its horizontally aligned sets and dance moves, replicating the kind of CinemaScope format associated with musical cinema of the time. But it’s also in a particularly wondrous quasi-dream sequence from Julie that the Part II film crew unleashes everything they have in the tank, navigating between black-and-white and primary colors in immaculate soundstage sets, faithfully channeling aesthetics of various eras in film, and masterfully framing them all in a 1.33:1 aspect ratio. (Truly devoted viewers of Hogg’s work will be quick to recognise this as an homage to her real-life graduation film, Caprice (1986)—which also happened to star Tilda Swinton in one of her earliest film roles, and affirms this moment as bridging Byrne and Swinton’s generations together in a gorgeously emotional sequence.)

To describe Byrne as merely the “glue” or the “anchor” holding this movie together would be too crude of a metaphor for the kind of adept emotional work on display in her luminary performance as Julie, especially when the dynamic of this film seems to be the other way around. Rather, it’s the supporting cast’s experiences and perspectives that are holding Julie together through all this, and Byrne ensures that her deeply felt portrayal of Julie—from a bereaved, reserved woman to a self-confident, assertive filmmaker—evolves as a direct result of the contributions of those around her, as she takes on the lessons they give Julie and imbues them into her character’s ensuing actions and decisions. Given how inseparable Hogg makes herself from Julie’s story, too, Julie’s growth appears to serve as Hogg paying tribute to those who supported her during her film school years and during production of Part I—a kind of thanks she expresses to them for helping her actualise herself as a filmmaker, learn from her grief, and evolve into someone more aware than ever of her own place in the world.

What makes The Souvenir Part II—and its predecessor, by association—a powerfully transcendent experience is that it’s perhaps one of the only films to more literally show its audience a concrete reminder of why people make movies, why people watch them, and why we love cinema as much as we do. Julie’s romance with Anthony in Part I may, by itself, be a moving, lucid depiction of a flawed yet beautiful first love, but Hogg adds an extra layer in Part II of her own personal growth through The Souvenir‘s creation, showing us (even, perhaps, with some embellishments) how, through the film’s making, she was able to process and overcome the sadness and grief that most likely engulfed her. She, too, is as much of an autonomous character here as Julie is, one who we can more directly observe and empathise with through Julie’s story—and as a result, who we can further connect with beyond her name simply appearing in the credits. That connection between audience and creator is rarely, if ever, quite as strong or direct as it is in both Souvenir films… and it is difficult to understate how much of a moving, precious gift that truly is for any work of art.

UK | 2021 | 107 MINUTES | 1.33:1 • 1.66: 1 1.85:1 2.35:1 | COLOUR BLACK & WHITE | ENGLISH

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Cast & Crew

writer & director: Joanna Hogg.
Honor Swinton Byrne, Tilda Swinton, Jaygann Ayeh, Ariane Labed & Richard Ayoade.