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Cannes 2021 ‘The Souvenir Part II’ Review: Joanna Hogg Returns to Adolescence in Sequel to Breakout Hit

'The Souvenir Part II' is the surprisingly experimental follow-up that settles the scales for its protagonist: the story of a young woman not dragged into the undertow of grief, but rather using her art to surface above it.

Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival
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“Everything is copy,” Nora Ephron’s mother once said to her, and the simple phrase became a mantra for her oeuvre: everything that happens to you, good or bad, can be repurposed for narrative art. Ephron abided by the slogan as she produced a slate of autobiographical material, even writing her way out of heartbreak as it was happening in the moment. 

Joanna Hogg, of course, writes in a very different mode—one in the stylistic tradition of Ozu and Rohmer, rather than that of Ephron and Nancy Meyers. But the same guiding autobiographical ethos—that commitment to portraying real life as it happened—seems a potent force in Hogg’s work, different in style though it may be. No better example of this can be found than in Hogg’s 2019 critically acclaimed film The Souvenir, based on Hogg’s own past relationship from her days as a student in the 1980s. The story of a young English film student named Julie who enters into an all-consuming and turbulent relationship with Anthony (played by Tom Burke and pronounced Antony, as in “and Cleopatra”), a man mired in the depths of a heroin addiction, The Souvenir offered a strikingly moving portrait of a young artist and woman coming of age. Unlike Ephron’s instantaneity, Hogg has said in interviews that she ruminated on the source material for about thirty years before eventually deciding she was ready to take it to the screen, resisting previous doubts that she insufficiently understood Anthony’s point of view, which she felt she needed in order to tell the full story.  

But The Souvenir is Julie’s story, not Anthony’s, and this becomes increasingly clear in the second half of the diptych, which Hogg brought to the Croisette this year as part of the Directors’ Fortnight line-up. Surer of itself and its vision than its predecessor, The Souvenir Part II is the surprisingly experimental follow-up that settles the scales for its protagonist: the story of a young woman not dragged into the undertow of grief, but rather using her art to surface above it. If everything is copy, then The Souvenir Part II is copy’s ne plus ultra, a kind of auto-fictional and metatextual reclamation of a young woman’s power and artistic vision. 

But the reclamation isn’t easy, and Hogg’s avatar in the film (played adeptly by Honor Swinton Byrne) struggles immensely with the contradictory amalgam of grief and anger, love and righteousness, in the wake of Anthony’s death. Julie flirts with a few young men, including an actor in her friend’s project (“Stranger Things”’s Charlie Heaton) and the editor of her student film (a briefly-appearing Joe Alwyn). Though both these men suggest the promises of new, more adult relationships—Heaton’s character seems more sexually adventurous, whereas Alwyn’s is respectful, but incompatible—neither of them are a close enough approximation of Anthony, who despite his destructiveness looms large in her life after his absence. 

Her parents never quite understand Julie’s feelings of grief and disappointment, though they try to display their affection in their own indirect ways—Tilda Swinton reprises her role as Julie’s mother (another moment of art mirroring life, as she is the Swinton in “Swinton Byrne”), this time having enrolled in a college course and taken up pottery, while James Spencer Ashworth, a non-professional actor, plays Julie’s father. The three share a warm rapport tempered by repression; in these familial scenes, Hogg creates the sense of the elephant in the room, hovering just out of frame. It is impossible for Julie to really talk about the events of the previous film with her parents, so naturally she buries herself in her filmmaking; she abandons a prior idea for a much more personal one about her relationship, in effect producing the movie that becomes The Souvenir.

Here, The Souvenir Part II extends fascinatingly into autofiction, blurring the boundaries between fiction and real life, narrative and diary. A curious layer of valences accumulate, of stories within stories. Life imitates art and art imitates life. Though Julie casts two other actors in her semi-autobiographical final film, those who appear in the final cut to play Julie and Anthony are the actual Julie and Anthony, played by the original actors, Byrne and Burke. The voiceovers, accordingly, are sourced from Hogg’s first installment of The Souvenir. The short film-within-the-film is a close recreation of Hogg’s own graduation film from 1986, starring Tilda Swinton, and Byrne wore many of her mother’s old costumes for the filming. So what is reality and what is fiction? 

The Souvenir was always deeply autobiographical, but its sequel seems to take this notion to its logical extreme. It is all the better for it. A palimpsest of real and unreal amasses in which what is strictly fictional versus autobiographical no longer matters. All of it is real, but all of it is copy. As an extended final sequence depicting a raucous birthday party for Julie pans out to reveal a surprising shift in setting, we get the sense that Hogg suggests that the story never stops, that Julie-and-Joanna keep making their art in an ouroboros of self-reference, self-reflection, and self-creation. After all, it never mattered which man might love Julie. The person who loved her best was always herself.

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Caroline Tsai

Caroline Tsai is a film critic and screenwriter by day, meticulous watch-list curator by night. (Seriously—she might have a problem.) When she’s not daydreaming about Oscars season and working out as an excuse to rewatch “Succession,” you can find her interning for Janet Yang Productions, writing newsletters for her Substack (cahier.substack.com), and publishing occasional fiction at carolinetsai.com.

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