NYFF 2021 review: The Souvenir Part II (Joanna Hogg)

“Joanna Hogg directs her intense gaze into an artist’s soul, elucidating the mysteries of grief, mourning and the healing power of art.”

Two years ago Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir became an unexpected but totally deserved cause célèbre with arthouse audiences after its unveiling at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. It represented a breakthrough for the hardworking British filmmaker as she experienced overwhelming critical acclaim for the first time in her decades-long career. Now comes the concluding chapter which she debuted in the Director’s Fortnight section at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year.

We begin where we left off in the previous film, catching up with young filmmaker Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne) after the death of her partner Anthony (Tom Burke) due to a heroin overdose. The sequel sets Julie on the path to parallel reckonings – one with Anthony’s shrouded past as she meets a myriad of his former acquaintances to decipher his mysterious life. And the other a more painful odyssey inwards into her own mind, as she comes to terms with the relationship she had with the man she loved.

The first film was nothing if not a tale about the heavy price paid for intimacy and cultural refinement – consensually accepted (or voluntarily shrugged away) gaslighting. The fallout of that relationship and Anthony’s death haunt the film to a great degree. It was also well-established through the first film that Julie is a deeply intelligent person – a monumental feat considering the rarity of credible portrayals of youthful (not precocious or cynical) wisdom on screen. That the audience is able to hold on to this impression despite the series of terrible choices and decisions Julie makes is a testament to Hogg and Swinton Byrne’s skill.

They indulge in similar alchemy here. While Julie is distraught over her boyfriend’s death, she is not a person who will find salvation by emotionally wrecking herself or by seeking visceral cathartic release. Her reckoning with grief will also have to be intellectual. And thus Julie sets out to make her film-school graduating student film about her own life – examining in raw, painstaking detail her entire relationship with the man who hid so much from her. It is the most devastating and humiliating way to deal with grief as the exorcising of her demons is highly public and being played out in plain sight, whereas grief is usually dealt with behind closed doors. Staging take after take of traumatizing episodes of her life with actors playing her and her dead boyfriend is what Julie has to put herself through to get over her loss.

Sharp and cutting details chart the entire filmmaking process which is shown at great length and occupies the bulk of the film. Cinephiles will get a kick out of these portions. At one point the actress playing Julie tells her that her character makes zero sense, that her response to her boyfriend stealing her things (an event that happened in the first film) is completely unrealistic, and that she is extremely submissive and dominated by the man in the relationship. Julie has to swallow her pride and accept all of it as she tries to explain her life choices to the actress playing her.

The finale is a metaphorical flight of fancy, with a tableau of Julie’s life as she walks through it with Anthony haunting every moment of it. To move on, Julie realizes she will have to put his memory away. She does so by shooting Anthony – not with a gun but with a camera, and that is her absolution. It is trial by fire, but the act of making her film is an act of bravery that Julie performs with admirable obstinacy. If nothing else, this film is a poignant depiction of the self-flagellation necessary for artists to put so much of themselves into their art and offer it up to the world.

Because the film depicts many of the same situations as the first film, some might consider it inessential – though the story was always designed to be a two-parter. This is admittedly a film of lesser scope, but is not the less potent for it. While the first film seemed to explode outwards beyond the boundaries of its frame, touching on class, culture and history, the current film implodes inwards as it burrows deeper into Julie – Hogg pushing against the limit of character exploration in feature films. If the first film represented introspecting about life, the second film represents introspecting about the act of introspection – a degree of self-analysis that audiences might find vertiginous.

As with the situations from the previous film, most of the characters and actors return too. Tilda Swinton (the lead actress’ real-life mom) as Julie’s wealthy mother and Ariane Labed as the actress playing Julie in the film-within-the-film provide excellent support. Richard Ayoade is an absolute hoot as the mega-asshole film director who Julie occasionally hangs out with. Tom Burke – present only in fleeting cameos – is conspicuous by his absence, such is the extraordinary power of his performance in the first film.

Additions to the cast include three young heartthrobs opposite Swinton Byrne – Charlie Heaton, as cope-up sex to fill up the intimacy void, Harris Dickinson as the actor who portrays Anthony in her film, and Joe Alwyn as her editor, a man Julie desires. It is notable that the Heaton and Dickinson parts were originally a single character and written for Robert Pattinson as the male lead – much like Burke in the first film, but Pattinson had to drop out due to Christopher Nolan’s Tenet. It is tantalizing to consider how different the film might have been had Pattinson been a part of it.

At the conclusion of this series we have to applaud Hogg’s achievement. The Künstlerroman (a tale of an artist’s maturation) is a much neglected and usually botched genre of storytelling, and it reaches its modern zenith with these exquisite films. The series is also to be praised for one of the most delicately shaded and fully realized female heroines to emerge in some time.

It should be noted that this film, despite the filmmaker’s protestations, is not a stand-alone feature. This is amply demonstrated by the fact that both the Director’s Fortnight and the New York Film Festival programmed The Souvenir as part of their selection when they showed this follow-up. You wouldn’t be able to make head or tails of this film without watching the prior part first.

But admirers of the first film will find new treasures to unpack. Hogg shows us like few today how art and life co-mingle, each uplifting the other towards the ultimate pursuit in life – a sense of meaning. Her intense gaze into an artist’s soul elucidates the mysteries of grief, mourning and the healing power of art. This is one cinematic universe we are wholly happy to endorse.