Joanna Hogg’s new movie was always going to happen. Too much was left unresolved in her confessional The Souvenir for it to be a stand-alone movie about a young woman based on her younger self travelling through the dark side of a codependent relationship only to emerge bruised, haunted, but intact. Even so, Hogg could have ended Julie Harte’s tale there and leave us to put in the pieces of where the character would go next. She could have revisited it 10, 15 years later, but by then, she would have necessitated different actors… or tell a completely different story. And that would be fine all the same.
As it stands, Hogg took no time to get back in the director’s seat to develop the Part Two of The Souvenir, and it looks and feels as if she had in fact filmed it concurrent to her earlier film. We spare no time in re-entering Julie’s world. Anthony (Tom Burke) is dead, and she is still very much trying to figure what the hell just happened, and why is she, not he, still alive. Wanting to make sense of it all, while working on a documentary that now seems to be escaping her grasp and interest, she embarks on a series of visits to perhaps find closure. What actually takes place, however, is that Julie starts to move into a new project, one that will be her thesis in order to graduate, but one that she is advised against. It is the story of her own experience, seen through her own directorial eyes.
Most filmmakers who engage in autobiographic movies run the risk of turning their story into an exercise in auto-fetishization with a strong inclination towards self-pleasuring through indulgence. Not many directors have managed to successfully pull this off — Fellini may very well be the only one who not just did so, but single handedly pulled off in making one of the most influential movies of the Twentieth century, bar none. Almodovar comes as a close second. Hitchcock, a third, and even his incursions were mostly referential, with his narratives of the wrong man on the run, or his unhealthy obsession with Kim Novak.
The greater bulk of Part Two is seeing Julie attempt to recreate events almost identical to the ones that transpired in her own life. In doing this approach, which now includes having film school mates Garance (Ariane Labed) be a virtual stand-in for Julie (herself a stand-in for Hogg), she threatens to become a bit unglued, and unfocused. All throughout, she continues to receive ample support from her understanding parents (played by Tilda Swinton and non-actor James Spencer Ashworth, both who manages to make strong impressions with relatively small parts).
The Souvenir offers no surprises, no plot twists, no sudden, dramatic reveal. Early on, a plot development involving Julie’s period gets dropped in a rather comical manner in a scene involving Charlie Heaton of Stranger Things). It does offer an insight into the world of film making, as it presents not just the details on how scenes are constructed, but in Hogg’s own universe, which is a set made to resemble her own apartment, to replicate in fiction the event from her past. We also get to see Julie struggle with the task of being a director. She comes off as mousy to a fellow classmate now auteur-in-the-works (played to acid tongue perfection by Richard Ayoade). Other members of her crew start to struggle with the movie she is trying to create while all she can come up with is, “Well, this happened.”
Slowly, but surely, something does happen to Julie, and it is so subtle it goes by unnoticed for a long time. Because Hogg never gives us too much information on Julie’s private life but keeps us firmly planted in her day to day we only get snippets of memory coming together to form a collage. That the product she turns out is drenched in aspects of art-house moviemaking and thus, artifice, shows the ways in which a creative effort can go when some directions don’t pan out. The scene in which she inserts herself — which may or not be what she actually presented; well never know — is almost too meta, but it is necessary. To have her intended actors play out the climax of her heartbreak would have been like having Demi Moore and Whoopi Goldberg dance to the rhythm of “Unchained Melody”. It might have been what happened, yes, but film is reality through fantasy and escape.
The Souvenir Part Two is a great film in how it presents itself. Nothing is constructed. Everything flows from one scene to the next even when we hear an 80s pop song get cut mid-play. Events transpire in the most natural way ever, which reminds me of the cinema of Eric Rohmer. The only difference that it has to its predecessor is it’s tone. Much of the previous was filmed in muted tones that gave the movie and aura of austerity. This time around, the tones are more sunlit, brighter, more colorful, completely natural. There is a subtle comic air to her sequel which completely lifts the movie up from its rather drab setting. Honor Swinton-Byrne’s scenes with Swinton elder do not even look acted at all. I would believe this is how mother and daughter behave around each other at all times.
Julie’s story now comes to an end, at least for now unless Hogg decides to revisit her one more time. In the meantime, Julie has grown up, made a movie, and asserted herself in a way that would seem too subtle, but in her, it comes off as completely a part of her own character. It still remains a bit sad that she had to go through so much so soon, but a life well lived is a life that has a story to tell. Julie may have seen the dark side of the moon, but now she takes off running over a field of wildflowers in pure ecstasy.