Joanna Hogg signs off on her double feature with The Souvenir: Part II, a quietly powerful, meta journey through grief and beyond.
The aftermath of someone passing away is as important as the event itself. It’s hard – almost impossible – to put into words how it feels after you’ve lost someone close to you and yet with The Souvenir: Part II, Joanna Hogg (Archipelago, The Souvenir) achieves it with this highly personal and raw semi-autobiographical account of her time at film school. Perhaps most surprisingly, The Souvenir: Part II is one of the most meta films of the year; it is a piece of work about the filmmaking process and how it can act as a form of emotional release, in turn mirroring Hogg’s real-life journey in making this double feature. It might lose some of the refinement of the first film but remains an incredibly powerful and tender journey, one which gives both us – the audience – and Hogg some sort of closure.
The Souvenir: Part II picks up right where the first film ended, with Honor Swinton Byrne’s (I Am Love, The Souvenir) Julie continuing with ever-intensifying film school studies whilst dealing with the death of her boyfriend, Anthony, who Tom Burke (War & Peace, Mank) appears as only briefly in a late, cathartic, dreamlike sequence. Whereas The Souvenir (2019) captured the mood and atmosphere of a flawed but giddy love, Part II is absolutely drenched in grief. Even shots of nature, captured in startling and quiet detail by DOP David Raedeker (The Souvenir, Undergods), have an air of tragic beauty about them, as if we, the audience, are tinged with depression as much as Julie is. And yet Hogg never allows proceedings to become too dreary, always finding strength in her characters even at their lowest points; her sequel is, after all, a story about rebuilding as much as anything else.
The main driving force of The Souvenir: Part II’s narrative is Julie’s final year film. It is clearly and unapologetically about her relationship with Anthony, his drug habit and subsequent death. Swinton Byrne, who shone in the first film but who perhaps was overshadowed by Burke (inevitably, almost, considering his character), has ample room to breathe this time. She gives us a performance that will sit with the year’s best come its end, never overdramatising Julie’s mourning but always showing that she is on the precipice of a breakdown – a poignant scene shows her sobbing uncontrollably to television footage of the Berlin wall falling – and impressively highlighting the importance of the film to the character. Hogg could not have wished for a better star to bring her story to life. Julie’s mother, Rosalind, who is played by Swinton Byrne’s real-life mother, Tilda Swinton (Michael Clayton, We Need to Talk About Kevin, The Grand Budapest Hotel), also has more to do in Part II, moving away from her slightly caricatured posh, elderly woman of the first film into something more well-rounded and real. She is a mother watching her only daughter going through huge emotional turmoil, and Swinton expertly captures Rosalind’s longing to see Julie get through it.
And yet strangely, despite the more focussed narrative of The Souvenir: Part II in comparison to its predecessor, it sometimes has a drifting quality to it. Grief can surely do this to people and is not made up of a whole lot of clarity, but Part II lacks some of the refinement – as mysterious as it was – of the first film. Itis undoubtedly a memorable, cathartic experience but perhaps less resonant than The Souvenir; it’s not that it’s too neat and tidy an ending, more that it – inevitably considering the events – lacks the sucker punch of the original. But whilst sequels are not always warranted, The Souvenir: Part II never falls into this category. It is always justified, with too much suffering and pain left behind at the end of the first film to leave unanswered, and resonates as a perfect companion piece to its predecessor.
And even if you couldn’t get on board with the experimental, sometimes distant first film, then watch this sequel simply for Richard Ayoade (The IT Crowd, Paddington 2), who gives the best cameo performance since, well, The Souvenir. In Part II, his character, Patrick, is given more screen time and lines and Ayoade gleefully takes this opportunity to create one hell of an obnoxious, sarcastic and unpleasant character, whilst still making him absolutely hilarious. It provides some much-needed relief to the heavier themes and plot points and shows Hogg’s equally adept nature at writing witty, sharp dialogue and creating memorable characters (unfortunately, you imagine Patrick is based on a real person).
Hogg’s The Souvenir: Part II closes with a such a firm, climactic closure that a third part would be unnecessary, but such is the power of this sequel, audiences would still gravitate towards it. Part II sits up there with the best sequels, be it The Godfather Part II (1974), Aliens (1986) or The Dark Knight (2008); all of these built on the strengths of the first films whilst still having their own voice. Even if the story isn’t wholly true – Hogg has conceded that the creative process has allowed events to take place in the film which are fictional – she has still taken us on a very personal, very moving journey, one with all the highs and lows of real life. The Souvenir: Part II is authentic, self-reflective, meta cinema at its finest.
The Souvenir Part II premiered at the London Film Festival on 8th October, 2021, and will be screened again on 16th October. The film will open in select US theaters on 29th October, and in UK cinemas on 4th February, 2022.