It was only two years ago that writer-director Joanna Hogg carved out a gorgeous memory piece with The Souvenir, telling a hypnotic tale of bad romance teetering on the edge of an impending tragedy. The story was about Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne), a reserved film student from a privileged background, caught in a turbulently passionate yet toxic relationship with the older Anthony (Tom Burke), who led a secret double-life as a haughty Foreign Office worker and a junkie in the ‘80s London. In the masterful The Souvenir: Part II—a sequel, a companion piece and a left-field B-side to Part I that somehow surpasses both the cavernous wisdom and thoughtfully refined style of its predecessor—she continues to sculpt Julie’s path with kindness, lovingly allowing her character to confront the paralyzing shadow that grief casts over her.
In that regard, Part II is both an artistic triumph and an organically intricate, even effortless feminist statement, one that makes you wonder whether a sequel has ever felt this earned, this inevitable before while Julie searches for a way forward, yearning to grow into a renewed, confident voice on the immediate heels of trauma.
As it was the case in Part I, this chapter also echoes Hogg’s past—with a rich performance of vanishing innocence and earned maturity by Swinton Byrne—in both broad and intimate detail, even though it isn’t exactly a work of straight autobiography. When it starts with attentively textured, pastel-washed shots of nature and leads the audience into Julie’s parents’ beautifully traditional and recognizably English country home, Part II feels like a blessing at once for resisting the fanciful temptation of obscuring the chronology in its opening moments. None of the characters—neither Julie nor her parents Rosalind and William (once again, portrayed elegantly by mama Tilda Swinton and James Spencer Ashworth)—time-stamp the scene for us with obvious dialogue. Still, it doesn’t take too long to realize that we’re mere days after Anthony’s tragic passing from an overdose. Pale, vulnerable and drained, Julie is seen in bed, cozily wrapped in a familiar-looking robe. You can tell she wants to fly, but perhaps doesn’t yet know how to heal her broken wings.
Once called “a dark horse” in bed by Anthony, Julie indulges in fleeting connections and sometimes even one-night-stands with men as a way to cope with the numbness. (The frank sex scene Hogg has in store for us here is nothing short of groundbreaking.) But like films that come to the rescue of those of us stuck in emotional turmoil, filmmaking offers a truer lifeline to Julie, who continues to borrow cash from her concerned but generous mother to finish her student film required for graduation. Setting aside her documentary project on a working-class Sunderland family we see her pursue in Part I, she decides to take on something more personal, something that investigates and plunges deep into her relationship with Anthony, before she parts ways with her student days. And yet, her mostly male professors (yes, their maleness is important to note) don’t sympathize with her sudden change in direction towards a film that captures life as she imagines it—they patronizingly question her vision and unconventionally structured screenplay tied with red bows.
Still, Julie leans into her creative instincts boldly, if not a little reluctantly at first, playing a detective of sorts with her time spent with Anthony in the past. It’s almost like she persists on in her own “Citizen Kane,” following the tracks, interviewing personalities close to Anthony—his parents and foreign office colleagues among them—and untangling all the ways in which Anthony both indirectly enabled and cruelly manipulated her, stealing away her power, obstructing her autonomy.
Slowly, we witness the process in which she wakes up from what resembles a frightening nightmare the details of which she remembers exactly, and yet, not at all. Purposely, Hogg conceals the precise aspects of the film Julie makes, at least for a while. Reuniting with her team of exceptional artisans from Part I—cinematographer David Raedeker, editor Helle le Fevre, production designer Stéphane Collonge and costume designer Grace Snell, all of whom deserve a hearty shoutout—the filmmaker starts trickling facets and objects of the former Julie’s life into the film she (meaning, Julie and Hogg) sets out to make in this installment. In one scene, Julie’s grandiose headboard—a memorable centerpiece in Part I—gets taken out of her handsome Knightsbridge apartment to become a set prop, to accompany the two actors—Ariane Labed and Harris Dickinson—tasked with the impossible assignment of playing Julie and Anthony in the student film. In others, settings and shots of soothing symmetry and softly haunting, almost buttery visual quality, recall the rhythms of the first film, with metaphoric and visual nods to Julie’s memories with Anthony: intoxicating conversations on Powell and Pressburger, extravagant trips to Venice as well as posh lunches and hang-outs around London.
It’s simply a heady film-within-film experience to observe Julie as she telegraphs both the empowering and crippling sides of all this to her actors, and direct her movie sometimes assertively, sometimes with the blabbering shyness of someone trying to defy a lurking imposter syndrome opposite of men who seem all too ready to write her off as a dilettante. As the viewers, we’re treated to a double-sided window or an infinity mirror of sorts here: one that allows us to see Julie from Hogg’s lens, the student-film version of Julie from the actual Julie’s lens and both of these women interpreted by Hogg in various intertwined avenues. This reflectiveness dreamily penetrates Part II in rewarding ways that are both immediately noticeable and undoubtedly demanding of repeat viewings. For now, suffice it to say that every narrative and stylistic decision that Hogg makes as a virtuoso of gentle domestic settings and calming visual balance serves a definitive purpose in Julie’s evolution towards a sense of self-sufficiency, even financial independence.
Especially exquisite in this journey are Julie’s costumes. Simply put, time passes, Julie’s hair style changes, her posture straightens and she grows up in more ways than one. Costumer Snell draws from all of this and more, curating a wardrobe of sharpening silhouettes for the modern young woman—architectural blazers, metallic pants, one-shoulder frocks and eye-catching footwear, with a poised aura that got hinted in Part I finally looking like a natural second-skin on Julie, once she reclaims her past and makes peace with it. Alongside Collonge, Hogg also has fun with dressing different types of film sets throughout Part II. Returning from the first film as a friend who first warned Julie about Anthony’s “druggy” state, Patrick (Richard Ayoade) takes a central role as a counterpoint to Julie’s aesthetic while he makes an ostentatious British musical “to exit the mood of the dreary England.” His often hilarious arrogance also indirectly crystallizes the contrast between his and Julie’s directing styles, underscoring the kind of prickly, overbearing behavior she would never be allowed to get away with as a woman just starting out in the business.
Then again, it happens to be no other than Patrick who gives Julie a sage piece of advice, warning her against the dangers of obviousness in filmmaking. It’s a principle Hogg evidently takes to heart in her filmography with the likes of “Exhibition” and “Archipelago,” avoiding shallow sentiments and clichés at all costs. Perhaps the best example of this in Part II is a scene between Rosalind, who takes pride in an imperfect piece of artifact she’s made as a new pottery student, and Julie, who regretfully drops and breaks it. It’s a subtle, graceful mother-and-daughter moment, where compassion triumphs over a sudden burst of temper that a lesser film filled with obviousness would have indulged in. It’s a scene emblematic of the kind of patience through which Hogg lets Julie sign a new lease on life, entirely on her own terms.
This review is from the 74th Cannes Film Festival. A24 will release The Souvenir: Part II later this year.
Photo: Josh Barratt, courtesy of A24