Ben’s Column: The Souvenir: Part II (2021) – Review
A masterful exploration of memory and grief.
A masterful exploration of memory and grief.
Premise: In the aftermath of her tumultuous relationship, Julie begins to untangle her fraught love for him in making her graduation film, sorting fact from his elaborately constructed fiction.
“I don’t want to show life as it plays out in real time, I want to show life as I imagine it. That’s what cinema’s all about.”
Plenty of films today can say they’re focused on grief or trauma, but how many films can say that they’re explorations of the director’s specific experiences with those subjects? It seemed strange in 2019 when The Souvenir was released that writer and director Joanna Hogg was already working on part two. After all, “Part One” – as I’ll unofficially call it – told a complete story of Hogg’s very real memories of her film school days and her first adult romantic relationship. So what could a sequel have to say that the first film didn’t say already? The answer is brilliant, and announces Hogg as a masterfully nuanced filmmaker.
The quote above comes as Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne, returning from Part One) defends the script for her graduate thesis film to the advisors at her film school. They believe it to be disjointed and unadaptable as written. It goes against conventions for screenwriting and is wildly different from the original film she pitched in The Souvenir. The death of Anthony (Tom Burke) is still fresh in Julie’s world when Part II begins, and she goes around to his friends and family to try and understand who he truly was. After all, Julie’s relationship with him was based on the lies that he sold to her, and the truth that she was too naïve to accept. Unsatisfied with the results, Julie sets out to reconstruct their relationship as she remembers it, down to the very last detail.
This leads to a mesmerizing second act where Julie, as director of her own film, is essentially confronting the events from The Souvenir and viewing her own trauma outside of herself. Of course, she clashes with nearly everyone that works on the film, from the actors to the cinematographer to the production designers (all fellow students). But this is inevitable, because how can one person ever put their own true and accurate experiences out into the world and task other people with realistically depicting them?
Have you ever tried to retell your own dream to someone and found that no amount of descriptive words can measure up to what you saw in your head? This is Julie’s plight, and it makes Part II an incredible statement from Hogg, as the maestro behind the entire affair. Filmmakers have used their own personal experiences to shape their films since the beginning, but Hogg’s vision with The Souvenir and The Souvenir: Part II is one of the most unique cinematic events in recent memory. The whole story unfolds as a sort of Russian nesting doll – especially with the brilliant final shot, which re-contextualizes everything before it in an entirely new way. Both films showcase Hogg’s ability to craft natural dialogue that doesn’t feel improvised, a la Judd Apatow or Christopher Guest’s methodology. Her mostly-static camera adds to our sense that we’re watching a documented event unfold, which feels like a natural extension of the material.
It also helps that Hogg has Swinton Byrne as Julie to ground Part II in her perspective. Swinton Byrne is noticeably older this time around, which helps to emphasize Julie’s newfound confidence. The Souvenir may not be an endlessly re-watchable film series like The Lord of the Rings or Dune, but there are layers to Swinton Byrne’s performance alone to be uncovered on a second or third viewing. It’s not a technical or physical or showy performance that will garner major awards attention, but it’s no less masterful and honest. It’s telling that, though we (presumably) see the end result of Julie’s film, we never see a reaction to it. In fact, the shift from Julie’s film to real life is almost jarringly abrupt. No matter, as Hogg trusts her audience to fill in the spaces in-between.
Some of Hogg’s frequent motifs throughout Part II are doorways, televisions, and mirrors. Hogg doesn’t call attention to any particular shots, and David Raedeker’s cinematography is almost purposefully bland (in a good way!), but these choices underscore the themes that Hogg has at play. We’re constantly watching something else unfold just outside our own viewpoint, just as Julie is. Plenty of filmmakers have also dealt with memory, and how they view it. But with both pieces of The Souvenir, Hogg has found a way to put her own memories into the world in an impactful and beautiful way.
The Souvenir: Part II is in select theaters now.
About the Writer: Ben Sears is a life-long Indianapolis resident, husband, and father of two boys, as well as a contributing writer on ObsessiveViewer.com and a recurring co-host on The Obsessive Viewer Podcast, and a member of the Indiana Film Journalists Association. Aside from watching movies and television, Ben enjoys photography and running marathons, but never at the same time. That would be difficult.
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