The Souvenir: Part II, review: a playful cinematic memoir that entertains and provokes

·5-min read
Honor Swinton Byrne
Honor Swinton Byrne
  • Dir: Joanna Hogg; Cast: Honor Swinton Byrne, Tilda Swinton, Jaygann Ayeh, Ariane Labed, Richard Ayoade, Harris Dickinson, Charlie Heaton, Joe Alwyn, Tom Burke, James Spencer Ashworth

How much can art ever help us heal? There’s no straightforward answer to that question, which is why The Souvenir: Part II never stops posing it, readjusting the viewfinder, and switching angles. A British heavy-hitter in Cannes, this sequel to Joanna Hogg’s cinematic memoir of two years ago has a dizzyingly playful and prismatic quality. For a film overshadowed by terrible loss, it’s remarkably elating and light on its feet – at once a comedy of filmmaking egos, a multi-layered exercise in creative therapy, and a grippingly honest confessional.

Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Part II is its sheer buoyancy as a companion piece, springing off the earlier film’s strengths and finding ways to circle back, to reconsider and even critique them. Where Part I had a shimmering poignancy as a tragic love story, this is busy and dazzling: Hogg has never made a funnier piece of work or come to us with such fresh provocations.

As we neared the end of the 1980s in Part I, film student Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne) was confronted with the shock of her young life, as her boyfriend Anthony (Tom Burke) was found dead from a heroin overdose in the Wallace Collection’s toilet, having concealed the extent of his addiction from her over several years. Part II picks straight up from there, with a bedridden Julie wasting away in the Norfolk stronghold of her parents, played by Byrne's real-life mother Tilda Swinton and a brilliantly cast unknown, one James Spencer Ashworth, whose droll incomprehension typifies Hogg's deft touch with both seasoned actors and brand new ones.

While those two struggle to find the right things to say, Julie herself becomes preoccupied with what, artistically speaking, is worth saying. The main thrust becomes her determination to make a graduation film, which she decides to craft as a kind of memorial to Anthony. This project is so tentative, elusive and personal that it’s regarded with hostile bafflement by the supervisors on her course, who can’t find any through-line with her previous aesthetic and brutally retract their support.

Hogg’s satirical eye on film-school foibles is beadier than ever in such scenes, but there’s a touching esprit de corps among the student body, who may not always understand each other’s work but rally to help as far as they can. Julie, fumbling towards her vision, lacks experience, and the patience of everyone else on a film set is by no means inexhaustible. Her actors (Ariane Labed and Harris Dickinson) get stuck and vent about Julie’s work ethic while she eavesdrops; her huffy cinematographer (real-life d.p. Ben Hecking) throws a strop when she can’t make up her mind about shot choices.

Director Joanna Hogg - Martin Pope
Director Joanna Hogg - Martin Pope

Alongside Julie’s work in progress, there’s another film in production by one Patrick Le Mage (Richard Ayoade, expanding on his brief appearance last time) – an all-singing, all-dancing proletarian musical called The History of Our Youth, which looks absurd, and has just enough in common with the bang-on-period Absolute Beginners (1986) to make Ayoade’s scene-stealing pomposity feel like an insider joke.

Tucked away here are some of the most exasperated film-set insights this side of François Truffaut’s Day for Night. The hard graft and impossible logistics of the medium get a thorough going-over. But there’s also a profound sense of the pleasure, and satisfaction, of making something, however imperfect, and however long it takes. For Julie, it’s this film. But Hogg adds in a tiny morality play about getting too wrapped up in your own passion projects to respect other people’s. It comes in the shape of a lumpy sugar bowl – the first fruit of a pottery class Swinton’s Rosalind has been trying.

Byrne deepens her whole take on Julie so movingly, especially in making her need for new intimacy a raw, embarrassing thing. She has one animalistic one-night stand (with Charlie Heaton) but otherwise succumbs to painful romantic drift, crushing on all the wrong people. Joe Alwyn’s emotionally supportive editor has to sweetly let her down by mentioning he has a boyfriend, at which point the camera catches her stricken, and the audience thinks, “oh, babe”. Swinton continues to know precisely who Rosalind is, of course, and flawlessly transmits her essence, with three springer spaniels as her scuffling entourage. The family scenes are perfect.

A scene from The Souvenir
A scene from The Souvenir

The Souvenir: Part II is already doing everything you could ask of it, and then it springs a wondrous feat of pastiche-within-pastiche, serving up a kind of dream ballet finale that’s close to indescribable. Suffice to say, the première where all the characters eventually congregate is our ticket not for a literal screening, but a leaping-off into Hogg’s (and Julie’s) wildest hopes and reveries. The sequence is a through-the-looking-glass spectacle which dresses Julie up like a 1940s glamour queen, and takes her through a series of portals – adventuring, as her own film has aimed to do, into the very mysteries of her soul.

Even beyond this part, there’s a coup de cinéma waiting on the other side, which offers pointedly the opposite closing shot to Part I. It speaks not of any pat redemption through filmmaking, or an escape back into living once again, but of anxiety, and artifice, and selves that have merged to the point where real life and cinematic portraiture are hopelessly intertwined. From a healing point of view, this may not be quite what the doctor ordered. While entertaining us deliriously, Hogg pulls the rug out. Somewhere behind Julie’s camera, shooting into this gilded mirror, is a lost soul.

Showing at Cannes and released in UK cinemas on November 5

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting