The Souvenir Part II won’t wow you with special effects – it’ll draw you in with its frighteningly truthful portrayal of grief, guilt, and the recovery process for those escaping abusive relationships. It’s one for the people who’ll walk into the cinema wanting to see a great art film, who want to disappear into the story of a person who could very much be real. And it is – writer-director Joanna Hogg claims it, along with the first part, to be semi-autobiographical, based on true experiences of hers during film school. So, if you’re an art lover; a fan of exceedingly well-made psycho-drama; or even just a film student wanting the catharsis of seeing a story with a bunch of students struggle through making their graduation film – I highly recommend you see The Souvenir Part II, coming out in UK cinemas, February 4th.
The Souvenir Part II starts not long after part one – Julie’s ex-boyfriend, Anthony, has recently died of an overdose after a long fight with heroin addiction. She’s left with a few tough facts to swallow, and the baggage of Anthony’s psychological abuse weighing her down. Did she ever really know Anthony? She’s reaching for every bit of information that she can get her hands on, asking about him, what he was doing the day he died, what his friends and family think – but never is she given a satisfying answer, or anything to fill the sudden void in her life. Life doesn’t hand closure out to everyone who goes looking, nor does Hogg’s writing allow Julie to move on so quickly. Honor Swinton Byrne works wonders here, with Julie never really emoting all the way, withdrawing from lively and true-to-life conversations surrounding her, and very much showing us the isolation and emotional deadening of both the trauma she’s suffered, and near-paradoxically, the absence of the cause of that trauma. Because, while she’s picking up the pieces of her life, after a not-insignificant period of time where all she was, was based on him, she still clearly misses him, feels some level of responsibility for his death, and as real victims, likely backslides every once in a while by remembering her feelings during the peak of their relationship.
There’s amazing acting everywhere you look – A mention has to be made of Richard Ayoade, always a riot, and delivering laughs as effortlessly as breathing, apparently. Tilda Swinton and James Spencer Ashworth play the sort of parents you’d expect to be killed off in a superhero origin story’s first act, what with how great they are. They’re charming, comforting, never angry, and almost supernaturally forgiving. It’s clear to me that, just beyond what we see on the big screen, these are characters that live full and fulfilling lives, thanks to Swinton and Ashworth. But even better, we see in Swinton’s performance, that there’s a barrier between Julie and her mother Rosalind, one that prevents her parents from truly understanding her and her struggles – and it’s that which finally reveals their human fallibility, as with any fully-realised character.
We’re treated to that revelation in a scene where Julie is unaware her mother is behind the bathroom door, all while she’s throwing up from the stress of it all. Rosalind can only listen, not knowing what to do to comfort her daughter, nor is she able to fully understand her. Another scene is when Julie asks her how she felt when she learnt Anthony had died, and she struggles to lie, and hide that she felt what I interpreted to be a sense of grim relief. She’s again unable to find the words, leaving Julie once more unsatisfied. That this is a real life mother-daughter pair is a testament to their acting prowess – I can’t even begin to imagine the process that they and Hogg must have gone through in order to portray a relationship that is grounded in three separate realities: the events of Joanna Hogg’s life that these films are based upon; the real mother-daughter relationship of Swinton and Byrne; and the in-universe relationship between Julie and Rosalind.
The film’s plot revolves around Julie’s attempts to make her graduation film for school. In part one, she’d been intending to make it about the relationship between a mother and son in the failing city of Sunderland – but now, her grief and trauma has blended her life with her work, and now she’s making a film inspired by her relationship with Anthony. It’s here where we see The Souvenir step into meta territory. It’s based on elements of Joanna Hogg’s real life, and now the main character’s making a film based on elements of her own life. I think it works, in the film’s universe – Julie’s a film-maker, and here she is trying to process her trauma by using it as inspiration for a film. The production disasters that appear to riddle the project come about through Julie’s lack of understanding of how to make it, bought about by her own lack of understanding of what’s happened to her, or how she really feels about her relationship with Anthony, or if she’ll ever really feel much of anything again.
But meta in film, by nature, invites confusing discussion about the film’s intent by going meta. Back here in reality, what’s The Souvenir trying to say, if anything at all? I’m not quite sure, and I’m not sure if I’m meant to be sure. I suppose those who’ve lived different experiences to me, and especially those who’ve been alive for longer, would be able to come up with their own interpretations. When the characters are shown Julie’s graduation film, we the audience are instead treated to a bizarre dream-like sequence, where I think Julie ultimately lets go, and moves on from Anthony and his post-mortem control over her life – represented by her dropping a mask of his face – or at least, I think. It’s made even more confusing by the ending, peeling back the forth wall by showing us the real film crew shooting the final scene of The Souvenir Part II, with Joanna Hogg (I presume) even shouting “cut”. I’m really starting to think I should’ve gotten a degree in film before seeing this.
Either way, I really did enjoy The Souvenir Part II. I don’t think I’m capable of fully understanding it, but what I did, I loved – Honor Swinton Byrne’s acting is an absolute highlight, and it leaves me hoping I’ll be seeing her more in the future. The plot accentuates her performance, driving through at a meandering pace as we see her response to Anthony’s death evolve. The conversations in the film remind me of actual life, something that you don’t see very often, and I certainly appreciate. And let’s not forget just how well-made it is, with Joanna Hogg reaching into what must be a bottomless bag of tricks, constantly reinforcing Julie’s isolation and other character beats with shot framing that sets her apart from the rest of the world that she isn’t sure what to make of any more. You’ll likely enjoy it just as much as I did, even if your ability to name the techniques used to make such an excellent film is just as lacking as mine. Of course, if your tolerance for confusion while watching a film is low, and you like your stories straight forward and solely contained within four walls, your mileage may vary – but no matter how you look at it, The Souvenir Part II is an undeniably great and immersive character study. Don’t forget to watch Part I first.