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- Reviewed from the 2021 Cannes Film Festival.
How do you follow a film like The Souvenir (2019)? Joanna Hogg’s unsparing portrait of the relationship between a student filmmaker, Julie (Honor Swinton-Byrne) and an older man, Anthony (Tom Burke), who ends up dying from a heroin overdose, was loaded with metatextual emotion by virtue of being naked autobiography. Hogg recycled personal mementos, using photographs of the view from her own apartment window in 1980s Knightsbridge to show Julie’s view of the same and bringing her own gold-framed bed onto the set for Julie to sleep in. These tactile details blurred the line between truth and art, a line further blurred with playful sophistication in this transfixing sequel.
The first shot in The Souvenir Part II is of white flowers in the idyllic garden of Julie’s parents’ country pile. Next we see mum Rosalind (Tilda Swinton) carefully carrying a breakfast tray, decorated with a flower, to the room where a grieving Julie has come to convalesce. This mother and daughter relationship, played by a real mother and daughter, is the font of the film’s central tenderness. Ever the queen of understated emotion, Hogg mostly keeps scenes driven by stilted chit-chat but every so often feeds in the most devastating line of dialogue. When Julie presses her mum to reveal how she felt when she took the call informing of Anthony’s death, Rosalind replies “I felt through you,” using a soft, matter-of-fact voice that renders the ineffable power of her maternal love.
If Part I was about Julie losing herself in romance, Part II is about Julie finding herself in grief, as she attempts to process what happened with Anthony through the making of her thesis film, itself as transparently autobiographical as The Souvenir is for Hogg. The making of the film-within-the-film gives rise to excruciating moments that show its creator’s lacerating self-awareness and lack of vanity. Harris Dickinson shows up to play ‘Anthony’ (opposite Ariane Labed’s ‘Julie’), wincing with the pained confusion of a well-meaning actor confronted with a director who has not given him a solid character. As he questions the material, the sense is that he is also questioning whether Julie really knew Anthony. The film expresses the awkward and vulnerable truth that creating something out of raw emotion means total exposure to collaborators, not all of whom will be on side.
Hogg relishes drawing up a range of unsentimental peers, each complete with their own desires and impulses, no one reduced to being a supporting act in Julie’s emotional drama. Swinton-Byrne brings a new poise to her role, marking her progression from a doe-eyed naif to a determined young artist capable of taking routine blows to her self-esteem while moving forwards.
One man was once her world, but now there is a mini carousel of men in the form of casual relationships. These do not touch her core of solitude, an interiority expressed as she talks to a therapist and implied as she sits in the still of a home previously shared with Anthony. The men in her life now exist along sexual, creative or friendship lines, and each is given a generous dollop of humanity, whether it’s Charlie Heaton showing up to fuck the pain away, Jaygann Ayeh sticking up for Julie in front of a mutinous crew or Joe Alwyn, whose kindness belies his own world of suffering. The biggest scene stealer is Richard Ayoade as an arthouse filmmaker, who delights via a combination of flamboyant outfits and withering lines and who conducts his sets and himself with the petulant grandiosity of a baby king. His outfits include a pink jacket, a fur coat, a cream suit and a gold-flecked tie. Costume designer Grace Snell does stellar work throughout, giving Julie a more sophisticated wardrobe than in Part I to reflect her growth.
The genius of this film, which could have easily displayed the solipsism of grief, is that it goes the opposite way. Julie, freshly burst out of the love bubble, navigates the world and meets people on their own terms, at the distance of a creative person figuring out how to channel grief. Hogg illustrates the concept of ‘sonder’ (the realisation that everyone else has as rich and complex a life as you) with a perspective that Julie will eventually grow into. Evidence of her intention to own this portrait of the artist as a young, bereaved woman arrives in a perfectly judged finale, where Hogg’s own voice has the final word.
The Souvenir review: Joanna Hogg pulls the threads of a doomed romance
Hogg's drily perceptive drama unfolds in a series of painterly and acutely well-judged vignettes, as Honor Swinton Byrne and Tom Burke play lovers adrift in early 1980s Knightsbridge, writes Kate Stables.
By Kate Stables
Sight & Sound Summer 2021
In our current (double) issue we hand centre stage to 100 hidden heroes of cinema who have shaped film history. Plus Ben Wheatley on In the Earth, Emma Seligman’s Shiva Baby, Victor Kossakovsky’s pig portrait Gunda, Jane Fonda interviewed, Limbo and refugees on film, and a look back at My Own Private Idaho. Available in print and digitally.Find out more and get a copy