Making films is hard. To make a movie of your own life is another feat of emotional and technical strength. So, what happens when you make a lightly fictionalized drama inspired by your youth, and then give it a sequel where your avatar has to tell their own story through the medium of cinema? This is the meta setup behind Joanna Hogg’s Souvenir duology, with the second part now playing in theaters.
Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne), a film student living in Sunderland, is mourning the loss of her ex-boyfriend Anthony (Tom Burke). This sequel picks up almost immediately after the events of its 2019 predecessor, with Julie left stuck in a spiral of grief. She soon begins working on her graduation film, a barely veiled dramatization of her relationship, but those scars run deep. And their cause was the deception and gaslighting caused by Anthony, a heroin addict whose charm and manipulation overwhelmed Julie’s life and understanding of the truth. How do you make fiction out of your own life when you have no idea where reality stops and the story begins?
At one point, Julie tells her skeptical university advisors that she wants to film like she sees it, not as it really is, a choice they reject as foolish and undeserving of their support. It’s an experience that Hogg knows all too well. Her own graduation film, a surrealist feminist satire starring Tilda Swinton (returning to The Souvenir to play the on-screen mother of her real-life daughter), was dismissed by her elders at a time when kitchen-sink realism and grit were prized. Hogg would later define herself as a filmmaker through minimalism, static shots, and an austere approach to often deeply personal topics. This was evident in The Souvenir, a drama that often felt smothering to the viewer thanks to her stark approach to topics such as emotional abuse and addiction. Julie’s naivety and monied privilege left her entirely unprepared for the obsessive nature of her relationship with an older man and world-class bullsh*tter, and soon her own world began to feel smaller and smaller as their romance progressed. In The Souvenir Part II, she seeks to find a story to tell through her experiences, one that feels authentic to a muddled and frequently toxic experience. It’s a far looser film than its predecessor, often scathingly funny, but still tethered to the immense shadow cast by Anthony’s life and death. Julie may try to move on but the crater of damage caused by Anthony is deeper than even she seems to realize. The flash of panic on her mother’s face when she asks for money is telling.
As much as Hollywood cinema loves stories about film and the lauded geniuses who make them, it’s still rare to see such stories centered on the art and process of women. We’re not short of lavish semi-autobiographical dramas about the troubled and brilliant men who more than resemble their directors (8 ½, All That Jazz, Pain and Glory.) Women-driven versions are less frequent, with my personal favorite being Sally Potter’s The Tango Lesson. What makes The Souvenir Part II a different and very striking addition to this subgenre is its focus on the technical and often mundane reality of trying to make a film. Julie is no tortured madwoman with a camera and a vision. She’s a student working with her classmates on a limited budget and dire lack of experience. When she ineloquently tries to instruct her frustrated classmates on specific camera setups she wants, the men around her look ready to snap (the misogyny of denying her authority is evident).
Regarding the aforementioned battle between realism and fantasy, Hogg keenly understands the value of both. Julie’s classmate Patrick (played by Richard Ayoade in giddy scene-stealing mode) rallies against the rigidness of Ken Loach-style true-to-life cinema, but cinema’s real beauty lies in its sheer variety of forms and how they can tell the same story in different ways. For Julie, her own lack of understanding of her life and Anthony’s means that it simply makes more sense for her to narrativize such events in an oppositional manner to how she lived them. Or is it?
Julie scrambles to find answers about Anthony’s life from those who knew him. His parents struggle with the same problem while his friends seem unwilling to talk, and his fellow addicts reject her inquisitiveness. Fittingly for a film based so heavily on her own life, Hogg is fascinated by the liminal space of memory. If that’s how you remembered something, was that how it actually happened? Anthony was a compulsive liar who had no qualms about charming a younger woman to extract money from her family. When she directs the actors playing herself and Anthony, they question every detail, asking how she could have been so ignorant to the blatancy of heroin use, to which Julie has no answers. When she asks Patrick if Anthony really worked in the Home Office, he simply replies, ‘Anthony was a junkie,’ which seems to wake her from her gullible stupor. He’s still dictating her life from beyond the grave.
When we see her thesis film, it’s a blend of Tales of Hoffman, The Lady from Shanghai, and early Peter Greenaway, and Julie finds herself moving through it as the protagonist. After all, it’s her life. I have mixed feelings on this part. While the work itself seems genuinely gorgeous and an ideal approximation of Julie’s fevered confusion of her very recent past, there’s something a tad cheap about how Julie becomes its star. We’ve spent so much time with her, watching her artistic process and finding a route toward an emotional conclusion, that it would have felt more fitting to see her work as a director and not as the star of a dream-like montage. The major stylistic jump from the simplicity of Hogg’s film to the grandeur of Julie’s works - is this closure or delusion? - but the implication that it’s part of her mind and not on the screen puts a damper on this portrait of a woman artist that proved so enthralling up until that shift.
In the first film, Julie initially plans to make a film about a working-class kid in Sunderland and his Loach-esque life before wondering if it’s really her story to tell. Turning to her own life, she finds the themes and truth she wants so dearly to explore, and with it she discovers herself as a storyteller. She’s not a wunderkind auteur who popped out of the womb ready to make a masterpiece. Like most of us, she’s had to find out what to do and how to do it. The process matters more than the finished piece, so argues Hogg, and it’s a refreshing change of pace from a culture obsessed with the wrongheaded notion that sole geniuses make art from suffering. Art, like life itself, is an ongoing process, as we see in the moments of Julie’s life after graduation. There are always more stories to be told and hopefully we’ll get our chances as time passes.
The Souvenir Part II is playing in limited release around the United States as of October 29, 2021, and expands to additional markets on November 12.
Header Image Source: A24