Joanna Hogg continues her semi-autobiographical portrait of the artist, a young woman filmmaker in 1980s England exploring grief.
The Souvenir: Part II is the name of the latest film from English director Joanna Hogg. When you release a Part II, the assumption is that we first need to see Part I. With The Godfather: Part II, to give a famous example, it was a pretty safe assumption given how successful and widely seen the first film was. The Souvenir, however, released in 2019, is not in that category. Hogg’s insistence on calling this movie The Souvenir: Part II shows the supreme self-confidence that can often accompany brilliance. In any case, the two films do form a continuous whole, and would be best watched in order.
The Souvenir ended with a tragic event in the life of the main character, Julie, a young student director in 1980s England, played by Honor Swinton Byrne. Part II opens with her struggling with grief for her boyfriend Anthony, who was a brilliant, charismatic, yet rather mysterious person. Julie tries to find out all she can about him from his parents and anyone else who knew him, but there’s always something elusive about her search.
Her mother, Rosalind, is played by the actress’s actual mother, Tilda Swinton. One of the results of this fortunate bit of casting is that scenes between the two have a special intimacy that you can sense. The closeness goes along with a gap in understanding, though: Rosalind worries about Julie, but doesn’t see how her daughter’s unusual questions and struggles contribute to her development as an artist.
At film school, the panel overseeing her proposed graduate film has a negative reaction to the script she submits. In The Souvenir she was working on a film with a realist technique, about a boy and his mother in a poor neighborhood in a northern city. But this feature-length screenplay is a personal story using more symbolic methods, based on her own recent life, which we’ve seen play out in the first film. Despite this discouraging reaction, Julie is committed to the project. Now we watch as her search for answers is incorporated into the making of her graduate film.
Hogg portrays the process of low-budget filmmaking with a sharp eye, including the work’s essential tedium. A fellow student, a French woman named Garance, suggests to Julie a young actor of talent whom she knows to play the boyfriend role. Julie then surprises Garance by asking her to play the lead part, basically Julie’s character, even though this disappoints another friend who has long been a supporter and who expected a part. Here we see how the evolution of an artistic project tends not to take the path of least resistance, but results from having to grapple with the material and discover what it demands, even if that upends expectations. The film is essentially a portrait of the artist—the story has many autobiographical elements, yet I’m referring to the wider sense of the artist in general. The director wants us to experience the creative process from the inside through the techniques she uses in her film.
One of the crucial things conveyed is that there is always a great difference between the film in her head and the one she actually makes. When Julie’s picture—called The Souvenir, of course—is finally approved and screened, instead of being shown the end product, we enter Julie’s mind as a sort of luminous dream world where the characters and the symbols are charged with emotion and meaning, and the thoughts and impressions our main character has been working with throughout the film are embodied in visual terms.
The Souvenir: Part II confirms Joanna Hogg as one of the more stylistically advanced directors working in film today.