“Did you avoid the temptation to be obvious?” asks Patrick (Richard Ayoade) to fellow film student Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne). “I think so.” she replies. In this vein, Joanna Hogg’s sequel to her 2019 semi-autobiographical art house hit The Souvenir uses similar techniques to Pedro Almodóvar’s Pain & Glory. Hogg immerses the audience in scenes that are at times fiction, at times memory, at times “real,” but rarely do we know exactly which – until she wants us to know, until she wants us to be aware that she is directing this story.
The title of both films is a reference to the 1778 painting of the same name by Jean-Honoré Fragonard, which in the first film inexorably ties Julie with a mysterious well-to-do man named Anthony (Tom Burke) who supposedly works for the Foreign Office. The Souvenir recalls the whirlwind of first love, the way passion can make you blind to the faults of those you love. The intense relationship envelopes Julie, who nearly flunks out of film school, causing her to isolate herself from her friends and family. Eventually Anthony’s heroin addiction breaks the two apart, his spiral ending in a deadly overdose in a public restroom.
From the French verb to remember, in English a souvenir is a memento or token that a person keeps from a place or an event for sentimental reasons. In the first film, it takes the form of the painting and the postcard of the painting that Anthony gives Julie. In the sequel, it takes on even deeper meaning. While The Souvenir is from the perspective of Julie, in the throes of her doomed romance, The Souvenir: Part II, takes a step back, allowing both Julie and the audience to see the cracks in the dream, to see the reality of the situation for all its painful truth.
Many of the film’s strongest scenes lay bare these growing pains. In the wake of Anthony’s death, Julie is back in film school attempting to finish her thesis film. Having missed quite a lot of school, she has difficulty communicating her vision with her collaborators. In one tension-filled car ride, her cinematographer berates her for never making up her mind before they begin shooting. He needs a script he can follow, he needs to know what the lighting set up is going to be, and he needs her to stop changing her mind in the middle. Julie sits in silence, taking in the criticism while her producer (Jaygann Ayeh) attempts to calm the situation. You can almost see Byrne completely turn in on herself, her body squeezed as tightly into her seat as possible, her face telegraphing every single doubt she has about herself for all to see.
Making a film is hard, and Hogg is here to show exactly how hard it can be. These scenes of strife on set are wonderfully contrasted as she visits the set of fellow directing student Patrick (Ayoade, chewing all the scenery), with whom she had a falling out. Patrick is so confident in his filmmaking he’s got a crew making a documentary about the making of his thesis. Savvy viewers will notice his film shares a resemblance to Julien Temple’s notorious musical bomb Absolute Beginners, a film with grandiose imagery that overshadowed its deeper message about racism in the U.K. Despite his confidence, Patrick has the same trouble communicating his vision, at one point yelling at his crew after receiving bland feedback. “Tell me what it makes you FEEL!” he begs them before storming off.
Julie must also battle with the advisory committee, who do not understand the changes she’s made to her film’s story; what was a straightforward drama is now a fantastical retelling of her time with Anthony. A well chosen souvenir evokes feelings in its owner, unlocks memories. Like Patrick, Hogg wants us to feel what she felt at this time in her life through her film, but similar to Julie, she is also using the medium of film to unlock her own memories. As she works on her thesis film, Julie struggles with what her recollections of Anthony make her feel, even questioning how much of what she felt was for him or for the idea of him.
Julie’s mother Rosalind (a tender Tilda Swinton) occasionally turns up to help her daughter through this difficult time. At one point, Julie asks what her mother felt when Anthony died. “I felt through you,” she replies. Julie must find a way to make others feel through her films what she herself once felt. And through Julie, Hogg allows the audience to feel through these two films her own memories, her own growth, her own vision of the world as an artist.
In The Souvenir, it was hard to watch Julie make such bad decisions for a man clearly careening to a bitter end. But by adding the distance of time and clarity of reflection, The Souvenir: Part II both softens the rough edges of its predecessor and brings the lessons found at the center of these memories into sharper focus.
“The Souvenir: Part II” is out Friday in theaters.