There couldn’t have been a film less suited to this writer’s tastes than The Souvenir, Joanna Hogg’s semi-autobiographical 2019 drama about an aspiring filmmaker’s ill-fated romance with a drug addict. It was widely heralded as one of the best films of its year, although it proved hard to engage with due to its exploration of class – or rather, lack thereof. This was a human tragedy caught within an elitist bubble, the sly satire about upper-class privileges some detected not registering to my eyes. A sequel seemed unnecessary. In actuality, it has turned out to be the former film’s saving grace (at least, for those vocal few left cold by the first part), a vital work recontextualising everything that came before it.
Image © A24/Josh Barrett
If the first film often felt detached from its core relationship, The Souvenir: Part II is haunted by its fallout; less a film about grief following a romance depicted at arm’s length, and more an examination of how artists use their work to dissect and rewrite real life to suit their narrative. It’s a deeply metatextual film by design, with Julie (Honor Swinton-Byrne) creating an avant-garde film, also titled The Souvenir, that charts her turbulent relationship with an older man (played in the prior film by Tom Burke). And although we see the fruits of her labour, it’s the process of making this personal work, a graduation project calmly dismissed by her university professors, that are integral to the film – the struggle to make sense of the man who inspired the production, and offers a clear articulation about his character to those involved with it. It’s a film that, whether by design or otherwise, counters any criticism of its predecessor, to the extent that it’s a surprise many treated that as a complete work while unaware of the ways this compliments it.
This is partially through jokes at the prior film’s expense. There, Julie was repeatedly seen asking her mother (Tilda Swinton, who again returns here) to borrow money, with the unspoken suggestion that it was eventually funding Anthony’s addiction, although the examination of the relationship between wealth and addiction was frustratingly unexplored. Here, the sole instance of Julie asking her mother for money is played as a broad gag, an acknowledgement of the unspoken privilege so inherent in the story. Privilege is not a prominent theme here, but is addressed to some extent in how Julie has developed as a filmmaker; no longer aiming to make a social realist work in Sunderland and depict a world she was divorced from, opting for a project so personal even she can’t thoroughly dissect the wreckage left in its wake.
Image © A24/Josh Barrett
But The Souvenir: Part II isn’t a film specifically about privilege, nor should it be. Hogg’s sequel is one of the strongest recent works about the very act of filmmaking, and the ramifications of using art as a form of therapy. Julie is directing a story that still remains largely alien to her, the mystery of Anthony’s identity (his claims to work at the Foreign Office still unverified) ensuring that grief isn’t a straightforward process for her to work through. Her insistence on making the project frustrates already condescending professors, who can’t fathom what she’s trying to address with “these images”, in addition to the cast and crew on the production itself. The film’s overarching thesis in these moments seems to be that trauma can only be directly addressed with time – and that three decades of dealing with many of the vivid memories which inspired the films is necessary to properly address them.
Image © A24/Josh Barrett
As with all the great films about filmmaking, this self-reflection is coupled with a healthy order of industry satire. Richard Ayoade’s pretentious auteur Patrick is given more screen time here, his big budget musical project and clarity of vision frequently shown in contrast with Julie – he’s ridiculous, but revered for staying true to his vision, while she’s belittled for the experimental methods in which she attempts to tell a personal story. Hogg has spoken about the sexism she routinely faced at film school and in her career, but it’s the indirect ways this factors into the narrative where it feels most incisive on the subject.
Hogg’s Souvenir sequel is her strongest work to date, a culmination of the rich themes that bubbled too far under the surface of its predecessor. If you too were left cold by that film, you won’t regret giving this one a chance.
Written by Alistair Ryder
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