The second part of British writer-director Joanna Hogg’s moving and masterly autobiographical two-parter about her days as a twenty-something film student opens exactly where the first one ended: just after the death of Anthony (Tom Burke), the boyfriend of Hogg’s alter ego Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne). The Souvenir Part II is equally as honest, searching and inventive as Part I. Grief and pain hang over the whole film, not least because Anthony, a few years older than Julie, was a junkie who claimed to work for the Foreign Office but left no evidence at all that he ever did so. There are many questions left unanswered, and complex feelings of loss and betrayal and certainly a strong lingering bond and affection underpin everything we see in this film. But Part II also has the air of a springtime reawakening – however much winter still lingers – and it’s a feeling reinforced by Hogg’s ample shots of buds, blossoms and flowers.
Julie is now embarking on her graduation film and decides to make it a ‘memorial’ to Anthony. Both The Souvenir films are essentially creative memoirs, and in Part II, Hogg slightly and playfully closes the gap between her own younger self and her filmmaking self now – a game that is teased throughout and plays out most explicitly in the film’s final moments. Perhaps more stark in this episode is the contrast between the artistic world that Julie is making for herself – a world more honest than when she first started film school and declared that she wanted to make social-realist films about Sunderland – and the genteel upper-middle-class Englishness of her background, a world of kindness and decency but one where so much is left unsaid and anything difficult is swept under the carpet. The film is blunt but also gentle about the limits of Julie’s mother (Tilda Swinton) and father (James Spencer Ashworth). We feel genuine love, protection and support, especially between mother and daughter, but there’s a strong sense of Hogg also needing the solidarity and inspiration of creative friends to help her continue to find her voice – a voice which a bold, brilliant dream sequence shows us aspires to the searching, the leftfield, the strange and the imaginative.
Searching, leftfield, strange and imaginative – you could call The Souvenir Part II all those things. It’s also sensitive and funny. There’s warmth in various friendships, and Richard Ayoade brings laughter as the pompous, proud filmmaker Patrick, seen making a big movie musical that has grand folly written all over it. Yet he also has some frank, tender interactions with Julie which help propel her in the direction she needs to go to flourish and move on with her life.
The layering of Part II – the film within a film about someone’s real life or a version of it – is very skillfully done, never obvious or pompous (unlike Ayoade’s Patrick). This is a story about the importance of making mistakes, of learning, of pulling yourself up and trying again – whether in love, sex, art or friendship. It’s a delirious ‘making of’ film: the making of an artist and the making of a life in all its messy glory.