The Souvenir (2019) and The Souvenir Part II (2021)
Joanna Hogg’s two-part semi-autobiographical project The Souvenir (2019) and The Souvenir Part II (2021) marks Honor Swinton Byrne’s debut. Part II traces the director’s personal artistic journey after coming to terms with an unseeming end to a toxic relationship during her young-adulthood. As I sat through the ending of Part II, a strange sense of ennui engulfed me. I was not remembering a personal experience, but was trying to put a finger on what exactly was wrong in the relationship between the movie’s protagonists Julie (Byrne) and Anthony (Tom Burke). The more I tried to pinpoint it, the more it evaded me. Julie fell for Anthony for reasons unknown to her; even after realising that he was an addict, she never allowed a sense of victimhood or tragedy to ensnare her. Perhaps that is what made the ending of the film succumb to a strange listlessness.
The Souvenir (Part I) shows Julie fall in love with Anthony even as she ignores signs of him being a user. She is constantly borrowing money from her mother (Tilda Swinton) and trying, and struggling, to create a life of her own as a film student. But in Part II we see how she is first in a mood of regression and then trying to recuperate, wading through the aftermath of Anthony’s death. But there is more that tethers the fabric of the two movies together than just an obvious plot. Both parts put together, The Souvenir is a drama that loosely follows Hogg’s coming of age as a film student in early 1980s London. And through each part she also shows the various investments that go into the makings of a director, an artist.
Throughout her filmic memoir, Hogg narrates a meta-tale of grief merging with art. In Part II we see Julie do more than pick up the lost pieces of herself from Part I. “I want to be really aware about what’s going on around me,” she says. There is an enrichment that pulls us deeper into the (meta) filmmaking process as she finally moves on from trauma. If the first part was sad, the second part is heavy, more deeply melancholic and poignant. Through its nervy, jagged lanes we see Julie try to put together the film—actors, direction, music, set—with the help of her film school friends. But she is too lost, too fragile, too wayward, and, of course, still grieving. The Souvenir Part II explores the seven stages of grief, showing first how Julie is unable to fully come around to the fact that Anthony is, in fact, dead. She is convinced that if she interrogates enough people, approaching them with varied questions, she will be able to finally arrive at some kernel of truth. What this truth will do for her, even she is unsure. It could be about the real reason why Anthony died, or the real reason why he took his own life, or perhaps why he used in the first place.
The story comes laced with maturity as Julie never gives into the agony of having a loved one pass away in this manner. She is effacing but brave in the face of this newly found misery. It might even be said that owing to Anthony’s passing she is able to find her voice and finally give a posthumous reply to his scoffing statement in Part I, “You are lost.” When the department faculty denies her funding for the project, Julie is bold enough to ask for help from her mother. “I don’t want to show life as it plays out in real time,” she tells her faculty. “I want to show life as I imagine it. And that’s what cinema is!” That her mother has a disposable £10,000 that she can put to use on a student film is a tad posh, but Hogg’s films have been known for their (understated) opulence. The Souvenir also sings with an element of soul-searching, almost as if an unsure person now wading into the unknown is trying to come to terms with her own standing in life. In this, The Souvenir quickly blends into the genre of movies where a pivotal character goes through a life altering experience, coming up for air and gradually finding herself in the detritus of the losses around. Only Hogg pushes the envelope further ahead. We see Julie go on not only a physical but also a metaphysical journey, navigating her inner, tumultuous emotions all the while. She seeks neither adventure nor closure. Through her journey Julie tries to find herself through the veneer of an elementary loss, and eventually does.
Several cuts in the movie where Julie is trying to piece the story of her own life back together are filmed in a way that they look like memories. Julie grows from a hesitant student unsure about who to cast into the person who decides what needs to be shot when on the sets of her movies. In that development, there is a coming of age, a sense of her growing into the person she wants to be, becoming her full self. The audience also sees how Julie processes her grief in a forensic way, by actualising her past onto film. Bit by bit, as she recreates scenes from her own life for her film, there is a sense of trying to understand the person Anthony was. And in doing so, she also gives herself permission to be free of the guilt of not having been there for him. Towards the end, Julie’s antagonist “Patrick” asks her, “Did you resist the temptation to be obvious?” She replies in an affirmative, indicating her confidence.
Part II traces Julie’s intellectual growth and formative memories as a young artist. When Julie is onscreen there is a sense of excitement hanging in the air. Not a morsel of pity, but a nibble of animation indicating that anything could happen around her. And something magical does happen. She is no longer limited by the shackles of expectations, death and age. Instead, she goes through life’s motions gathering experiences, finding truths, and keeping herself together with the single most important function of creating her first artistic work. There is a boldness that she has gathered along the way. As her artistic endeavours take shape and she faces the press ebullient. “I hope I have something to say in my thirties,” she smiles looking directly into the camera. The Souvenir is detailed and evocative in a way that the notion of grief becomes a chimeric dream. By showing the inner life of a director, Hogg is successful in culling an accurate portrait of an artist in transit. Both Julie’s and Hogg’s projects can be overwhelming, owing to their nature and proximity to meta, lived experiences. In that experience lies their beauty. They are both deeply personal, affecting portraits as much of grief, as they are of an artist’s inner life, her solitary traumas, and her various artistic troubles during young adulthood.
Later I would come to realise that the strange listlessness I felt while watching the movie was an acknowledgment of the patchiness that lay ahead. It indicated the discomfort through which Julie would go through, trying to first find why Anthony died and then trying to find herself. Hogg’s treatment of the story is trained and doesn’t falter, completing its journey from listless to that of a coming of age in its own right.