By design, The Souvenir: Part II is a film that exists without a heart. Picking up soon after the events of the first film in Joanna Hogg’s coming-of-age diptych on creativity and grief, Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne, in a performance of delicate degrees), is still mourning the loss of Anthony. But what defines Julie’s grief is the act of trying to understand not only the truth unwrapped from the lies that defined Anthony’s life, but also where this leaves her, as both a person and an artist.
This heartlessness can make The Souvenir Part II a more difficult film to latch on to than its predecessor; it can be difficult to find a way into Julie’s grief, both from the cold, deliberate distance of the filmmaking to the distance from reality that’s created by her privilege. She has options that other people don’t: she can ask her parents to fund her sprawling, spiralling student film; she can retreat to their country house. In many ways, Julie is given the time and space to grieve that isn’t afforded to everyone. The Souvenir Part II wrestles with these ideas, because it wrestles with the idea of film as a medium; with itself, with the film-within-a-film that Julie is making at film school, what purpose — if any — all of this (re)creation has; it’s recreation that is Julie’s first impulse when it comes to making sense of Anthony, and the void that he left behind. She asks the people in her life — her mother Rosalind (Tilda Swinton), Anthony’s parents, the friends that he introduced her to — about him, deciphering fact from fiction in a form that feels almost like a documentary: Julie collects testimonies to create an image of the person that she’s lost. The questions are often simple in The Souvenir Part II; she asks Rosalind what her first impression of Anthony was, if she liked him or not; she asks Patrick (Richard Ayoade — caustic, egocentric and hilarious as a would-be auteur) whether or not Anthony really worked at the foreign office like he claimed. He offers no real answer beyond “Anthony was a junkie,” defining his life as a search for a fix. In many ways, that’s what his relationship with Julie was, and in her attempts to understand it, she tries to understand these impulses in herself.
Patrick suggests that Julie try to memorialize Anthony through her filmmaking — a stark departure from the landscapes and politics she’s initially drawn to in the first film. Through ever chaotic, uncertain scenes of Julie making her student film, she literally recreates her relationship with Anthony. It’s layered, complex and melancholic, as if at once she’s trying to find out how to let go of him and doing everything she can to hold on to his memory. Julie slips into the first person when directing her actors, saying “this is what I was like” or “this is how it happened.” One of the oldest questions in visual art is the merit and limitation of representation, and The Souvenir Part II runs head-on into these questions through Julie’s warring impulses to remember and accurately document the relationship or understand it on a different level. This is what the film itself struggles with at times; the simultaneous closeness of its perspective with Julie, along with the distance it has with the emotions that she and those around her are going through, see Hogg herself questioning whether or not she can re-present or represent the past and all of the uncertainty that comes with it. Like its predecessor, The Souvenir Part II is defined by its open spaces; the silences in conversation, the gap between “action” and “cut,” the clouds between the memory of how something happened, and the reality of it. It’s through the strained making of Julie’s graduate film that it grapples most explicitly with its concepts, refusing to offer any easy answers, even when it comes to Julie’s emotional investment in her film. She seems uneasy as a filmmaker, changing angles and lighting on a whim, seemingly every time a new memory interrupts her flow as a director.
Julie’s film-within-a-film is reminiscent of the breathtaking ballet sequences in The Red Shoes and the experimental cinema of Kenneth Anger. A strange collection of visual associations — empty, epic sets; the black-and-white streets of noir — show Julie trying to chase after Anthony. There are fragments of the first film; a return to the Jean-Honoré Fragonard painting — also called “The Souvenir” — beside which she met Anthony for the first time. What makes this sequence so endlessly intriguing in The Souvenir Part II, beyond just its visual brilliance, is the way in which it seems to challenge, reinforce and undercut everything that’s come before it all at once. The moment opens itself up to reveal a beating, exposed heart that may or may not have been there the whole time. For Julie, this is about the power of film; not necessarily what she sees on screen, or what she made, but about the doors that it opens. Here, there’s no fear of those doors closing; it’s a way to return to the past and to look at it different every time the lights dim. And those images — mental, cinematic, remembered — begin projecting themselves onto that wonderfully blank, open space.
Sam Moore (@Sam_Moore1994) is a writer, artist and editor. Their writing on the intersections of culture, queerness and politics has been published by The Los Angeles Review of Books, i-D, Little White Lies and other places both in print and online.