What is “The Souvenir”? In Joanna Hogg’s autobiographically inspired 2019 drama, that title appeared to refer specifically to an 18th-century Fragonard painting depicting a young woman (the heroine of Rousseau’s epistolary novel Julie, apparently) carving the name of her lover into a tree trunk. In that film, set in the 1980s, Julie Harte (played by Hogg’s goddaughter Honor Swinton Byrne) is introduced to the painting by an enigmatic man with whom she is falling in love. Like Hogg, Julie is perplexed by what the painting means and by her own increasingly tumultuous feelings for her mysterious companion.
In this flipside second instalment of Hogg’s most personal and surprisingly most accessible work, the word “souvenir” takes on a rather more metatextual meaning. This time the film itself becomes a kind of cinematic keepsake, a memory of a memory (or a dream of a dream?) set in the aftermath of Julie’s relationship with the heroin-addicted Anthony. An overwhelming presence in the first episode, as portrayed by Tom Burke, Anthony is now an even more confounding absence, leaving Julie struggling to make sense of their former life together, with all its mysteries and misdirections. Who was her lover? Did she ever really know him? Did he actually work for the Foreign Office? Where did he go as the end approached? Who did he talk to? What was he thinking?
More significantly, The Souvenir Part II finds Julie finding herself, embracing her own future as a film-maker even as she wrestles with the ghosts of the past. Like Eva Husson’s underrated Mothering Sunday (which I stumblingly described in this paper as feeling “more like an emotional memory than an unfolding narrative”), this is a creative coming-of-age story – a portrait of the artist as a young woman discovering her own voice. Appropriately enough, the very last voice we hear in the film’s wonderfully self-reflexive finale is that of Hogg herself.
Facing the prospect of having to make her film-school graduation project while still reeling from the fallout of her doomed relationship, Julie channels her personal experiences into a free-form script (a “memorial”) that baffles and irks her tutors. Meanwhile, creative battles also engulf Julie’s fellow film students, most notably wannabe auteur Patrick (Richard Ayoade), whose own film has more than a hint of Julien Temple’s Absolute Beginners (“I always wanted to be like Orson Welles”), and who tells his editor: “You’re forcing me to have a tantrum!”
It’s a laugh-out-loud moment, one of many in Hogg’s oeuvre in which intense soul-searching is habitually broken by brittle humour, alerting us to a playful sensibility beneath the often austere surface. There are shocks too: a domestic scene in which Julie’s mother, Rosalind (played once again by a flinty Tilda Swinton), reacts with tremulous grace to an unexpected breakage gave me a start that had me burying my face in my hands – a sort of laughing-screaming-squirming symphony of tragicomic awkwardness.
As for the film Julie is making, at times it appears that we are watching a Pirandello-esque behind-the-scenes doc about the making of The Souvenir, viewed through a kaleidoscopic maze of self-reflection. Just as Julie tells her tutors that she’s no longer interested in showing life “as it plays out” but rather “as I imagine it”, so Hogg also uses an audacious cinematic sleight of hand to conjure yet another movie-within-the-movie, revisiting events that we have previously seen portrayed with uncanny realism, but here reimagined as fantastical flights of fancy that owe a debt to the dreamy dance sequences of old-school Hollywood musicals.
It’s a bold move, and one that invokes both Singin’ in the Rain and Fellini’s 8½ – not comparisons I thought I’d be making after reviewing The Souvenir. Yet watching parts I and II back to back (the first is conveniently available on BBC iPlayer), they do miraculously come together as a coherent whole, an adventurous meditation on the alchemical process of making life imitate art and vice versa. Hogg (who recently confessed to me her love of disaster movies) is currently working on a ghost story, her first foray into “genre” cinema. I can’t wait!