Midway through Joanna Hogg’s seismic “The Souvenir: Part II,” a continuation to her 2019 feature begotten from personal remembrances, her fictional alter ego, Julie (Honor Swinton-Byrne), sits in a van surrounded by the team of student filmmakers helping with her thesis project. The director of photography berates them for the inconsistency of the production attributed to Julie’s scattered-brained process.
She remains silent, but anger punctures her. This endeavor is not any pursuit, but one inspired by the destructive collision of her brittle innocence and the unvarnished cruelty of late romantic partner Anthony (Tom Burke). Directing from within her trauma, Julie struggles to remember the specifics of how certain situations came to pass, like the correct time of day, sometimes failing, and other times stubbornly holding on to her version of the events and frustrating her collaborations. But she stays the difficult course through pain and glory.
At first, this second chapter functions as a character’s investigation of her own grief and slowly morphs into a chronicle of the emergence of an artistic voice. Inevitably, the two are intertwined. Julie aches for the unresolved tragedy and for her nescient craft still riddled with self-doubt.
Often directing her powers to the affluent, Joanna Hogg is a great artisan and observer of behavior, deriving grave undertones from the unspoken statements of small exchanges. She introduces this post-trauma Julie in the angelical whites of her parent’s home, a place where she should find solace in the loving arms of mom (Tilda Swinton) but instead is plagued with apprehension. Anywhere she goes, her purpose is finding clues to comprehend the double life of the man she loved. The object of her infatuation was an addict but also an entrancing figure of tenderness and brutality—an elegant liar who bargained recklessly with her trust.
Hogg imbues the film with an ethereal veneer of timelessness obtained through soft lighting made to fall naturally on the people and spaces even when it’s anything but organic. David Raedeker, the same cinematographer who graciously enlivened the first chapter, employs a similar naturalistic effortlessness but elevates it into something more painstakingly conceived in the use of color and the camera’s interactions with the eye-deceiving production, particularly as the curtains fall and we acknowledge the extent of Hogg’s ambition.
She evidently took into account that the press for “The Souvenir” two years ago understood the artificiality of the backgrounds, created with photographs she had taken when she lived through heartbreak, and the elaborate recreation of sets she knew by heart. For part two, she has completely leaned into this wonderful artificiality. Add to the mélange of intimate accounts brought back to life in the medium of make-believe a set of upbeat songs from the 1980s, and the experience grows in its perfectly contradicting moods. One modern elegiac track, “Drive” by Anna Calvi, ponders, “Is this all there is?” as if Julie’s internal monologue, uncertain of what awaits her on the other side of closure, were spilling into other elements of this layered drama.
Because this is also a film about the miracle of moviemaking and how improbable it is for a director to achieve even a semblance of honest self-expression, let alone do so with marvelous subtly as Hogg has done more than once, Julie’s behind-the-scenes approach is presented as irregular and outside of the reels of what her film school instructors consider appropriate. She wishes to elicit from the actors the same sentiments she felt when in the clutches of her torrid love affair with Anthony. But her explanations get trampled, and communication breaks because she can’t see past her biased perception of who he was. Her colored sight allows reality to get in the way of her art. Hogg seems to be relentlessly interrogating herself in Julie’s every decision, and it’s riveting to behold.
Her attempts at intimacy with new men quickly fizzle, leaving confusion in their wake. With animalistic intent, actor Charlie Heaton shows up at Julie’s door like a vampire who must first ask for permission to enter her apartment before drawing blood. Then there’s the larger-than-life persona of Patrick (Richard Ayoade), a different type of image-maker whose megalomania trumps his talent. Julie’s interest in him is more mentor-esque and like a surrogate Anthony. Hogg populates the protagonist’s path with emotional dead-ends recurrently demanding she seeks closure in celluloid. She is cornered, between despair and her work.
Hogg found a tremendous acting vessel in Swinton-Byrne, a performer that conveys a sweet yet dejected aura. If the first film was a two-hander with Burke, this one is entirely hers. Emotions here are less turbulent, even more measured than before, if that were even possible, but all the more intricate in their subterranean nature. Her outward-facing persona hides behind insecurity, making herself invisible and undersized.
No tragic discovery or psychological torture this time, but a performance of a woman finding her own way into maturity, both as a person and as an emerging cineaste building herself back up with every scene she wraps. With her eyes speaking a silent language of naiveté laced with indelible longing, Swinton-Byrne quietly roars. “You are a human being with a life to live. That’s your job,” a therapist tells Julie. Such a deceptively obvious proclamation is the key to forgiving herself and moving forward.
At times you want Julie to scream, to tell everyone to leave her and her movie alone, to let her wallow in failure, or maybe even strive for triumph on her own terms. But she still hasn’t come into her own skin in full yet. The ghost of unspeakable sorrow still torments her, and it will for a long time. It’s only in the art she’s nurtured that she can experience some catharsis in doses. That must be said about Hogg in the same breath. More than ever before, the director engages with the self-referential nature of the project in a number of layers.
As the two intertwining films progress — the one we are watching and the one being produced in her fiction — the genius nesting doll of profound reflection, false assumptions, and artistic evolution begins to expose themselves. Hogg is projecting within a projection. Julie inside a set, within a set, replicating an actual apartment Hogg once inhabited. We witness her carefully recreating, reconstructing scenes from the previous movie, themselves taken from Hogg’s life, but now orchestrated by Julie directing her own “The Souvenir.” Julie’s filmic exorcism allows Hogg to ignore subtle realism. In her Technicolor nightmarish fantasia of memory, Julie wields the camera as if it were a gun whose ammunition is her painfully obtained growth.
By the time the movie ends, the viewer has entered a deconstructed space seated at the foot of control and chaos. Hogg is looking at herself in the mirror while holding a mirror and opening an inward-looking vortex. It’s a complex self-portrait filtered through the dramatic shield of storytelling. In Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s 18th century painting, “The Souvenir,” prominently featured in the first film, a woman carves the name of a lover on a tree; however, the canvas associated with this installment would be one where she writes on the other side of the trunk, not erasing the scars of what she survived, but turning the page.
An artist at the peak of her creative bravado, Hogg has completed her most astounding work yet. Most compliments will likely fall short of adequately describing its assured prowess. A masterwork of self-introspection through the canvas of cinema, “The Souvenir: Part II” is a meta epic of delicate proportions that constantly folds into itself and reveals the murky waters that border fiction and the reality that inspires it, sometimes, like in this case, more directly than others. That the truth somehow achieves greater veracity when reassessed via fabrication is a spell that only fully breaks when the director yells cut, and perhaps not even then. [A+]