THE STORY – In the aftermath of her tumultuous relationship with a charismatic but manipulative older man, Julie begins to untangle her fraught love for him by making her graduation film and sorting fact from his elaborately constructed fiction.
THE CAST – Honor Swinton Byrne, Jaygann Ayeh, Richard Ayoade, Ariane Labed, James Spencer Ashworth & Tilda Swinton
THE TEAM – Joanna Hogg (Director/Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 106 Minutes
By Dan Bayer
Joanna Hogg’s “The Souvenir Part II” picks up where its 2019 predecessor left off. Young film student Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne) is reeling from the death of her emotionally abusive cocaine addict boyfriend (Tom Burke). She is about to start directing her thesis project, but she’s having difficulty focusing, instead spending much of her time recuperating with her parents (Tilda Swinton and James Spencer Ashworth) and trying to learn more about Anthony’s life to figure out why he would have overdosed. When she presents a new idea for her thesis, her film school advisors reject it as half-formed, but Julie pushes forward.
Hogg displays a boundless sympathy for the foibles of her youth, admiring the artistic principles Julie and her fellow film students cling to even as she recognizes that the language they use is more than a bit ridiculously self-serious. This tone, which felt much more muddled in “Part I,” feels like the key to unlocking the film, which includes many, many scenes of Julie muddling her way around a film set, at one point telling her actors a scene takes place at night without realizing or caring that the cinematographer has lit the scene for day. Knowing that the film wants us to laugh at Julie, even just a little bit, makes “Part II” a far more bearable experience than “Part I,” in which scenes of serious emotional abuse butt heads against nave-gaze-y scenes of film students endlessly pontificating about the nature of art and truth with the guileless conviction of young people in a supportive artistic environment. That said, the storytelling here still holds the audience at arm’s length, jumping around in space and time without much context for how far apart scenes are. We don’t even see Julie write her new screenplay or really watch her decide to abandon her original concept for this new idea, based on her life with Anthony.
While Swinton Byrne remains excellent as Julie, the film frustratingly gives her very little room for development. The film feels less like a character study than a character portrait, a snapshot of who a person was at a certain point in time without much of an arc to speak of. This is interesting in theory, but in practice, it robs the film of forwarding momentum and the kind of dynamism that allows us to engage and become emotionally invested in a character. Julie is somewhat purposefully a bit of a blank slate, a canvas on which viewers can project their youthful selves on. Still, she’s also going through what seems like a turbulent time in her life, and most of the moments when she actually makes decisions occur off-camera in between scenes. This is frustrating, and the amusing dialogue given to fellow students Garance (Ariane Labed) and Pete (Harris Dickinson), and especially to more established filmmaker Patrick (Richard Ayoade), can only go so far in relieving that frustration.
The film’s centerpiece sequence, in which Hogg creates a short student film out of Julie’s journey across the two films, is by a good margin the most interesting, engaging sequence of both films. It is the moment when everything Hogg has been working with comes together to create something that feels singular, a loving tribute to who she was filtered through who she is now. It’s also the film’s most visually expressive moment, with David Raedeker’s cinematography playing with color and light in ways the naturalistic style of the rest of the film doesn’t allow. It’s a sequence that will surely spark debate – is this the film as Julie saw it in her head, or something entirely of Hogg’s own making? – and manages to be both a loving parody of student films while also being a near-perfect example of one. In contrast to the rest of the film, this sequence speaks to Hogg’s creativity as a filmmaker instead of just her skill. The tight control she exerts over the editing and shot compositions elsewhere in the film are impressive from a technical standpoint, even as they put a distance between the film and the audience. But in a film that is supposed to be an artist baring her soul to the audience, what’s the point of pushing them away? Much like “Part I,” “The Souvenir Part II” wants you to stand at a distance and admire it, thoughtfully stroke your chin, and say “ah, yes.” For many people, that may be enough. But if that’s not your sensibility as a filmgoer, you’ll find this almost as much of a slog as “Part I.” A very nice-looking slog, but a slog all the same.
THE FINAL SCORE
THE GOOD – Joanna Hogg’s portrait of the artist as a young woman has a palpable affection for its protagonist, no matter how ridiculous she gets.
THE BAD – The film offers little reason to invest in its lead characters and what little journey she goes on.