Souvenir Part II feature

Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne) in 'The Souvenir Part II.' The film is now playing in select theaters. 'Part I' is streaming on Amazon Prime Video.

Joanna Hogg’s first chapter in her two-part narrative, 2019’s The Souvenir, can be watched with watery admiration. It's a beautiful, quietly transformative journey of a young woman trying to find her voice as a filmmaker while in a relationship with an intellectually intoxicating and manipulative boyfriend. Stories such as this can so easily go for the loud approach, but not The Souvenir. It truly lives up to its title by being a gift, one that offers a lot of food for thought with its subtle, richly layered and visually stunning storytelling.

Its sequel, The Souvenir Part II, is also a gift. But it doesn’t offer more of the same. Instead, it looks at what we’ve learned through a different lens, much like going from Before Sunrise to Before Sunset. The characters try to make sense of what happened in Part I by exploring it through art. Sometimes cinema can help us articulate our emotions, and Part II is all about that. It captures life as it is experienced, avoids the temptation to be obvious and has fun with its premise that breaks down the barriers that many believe should be there to tell a story. (Think Spike Jonze’s Adaptation.) 

Note: Watch ‘Part I’ on Amazon Prime before reading the rest of this article and catch ‘Part II’ in theaters this weekend.

Part II reunites mother-daughter duo Tilda Swinton and Honor Swinton Byrne as Rosalind and Julie Harte. The A24 release sees Swinton Byrne as a stand-in for Hogg, who crafts a meta-memoir about the loss of her lover, Anthony (Tom Burke). Julie hasn't gotten past his death and doesn't know whether she misses him or that intimacy. Co-starring Richard Ayoade, Charlie Heaton, Jaygann Ayeh, Joe Alwyn, Harris Dickinson, Ariane Labed and James Spencer Ashworth, the film takes us through the emotional landscape of Julie as she continues to find her footing.

Hogg has a touch that is incomparable to many contemporary filmmakers. The way she presents her work is so classically done and simultaneously ahead of its time, similar to films like Paul Mazursky's 1978 drama An Unmarried Woman or Claudia Weill's 1978 coming-of-age story Girlfriends. She can carry a thematic tune for an entire film, never steering too far right or left to lose control. Hogg may throw a fork in the road every now and then to keep you on your toes. Sometimes it isn’t comforting, as seen during an intimate moment between Swinton Byrne and Heaton. However, it always feels honest.

The Souvenir Part II not only effortlessly expands upon Hogg’s original film with imaginative aplomb, but it also weaves in a thoughtful language that makes the film work as a standalone essay. Complete with award-worthy performances, meditative dialogue and poetically framed cinematography, this is one of the year’s very best films.

Joanna Hogg feature

Joanna Hogg’s shimmering story of first love and a young woman’s formative years, 'The Souvenir Part II' is a portrait of the artist that transcends the halting particulars of everyday life — a singular, alchemic mix of memoir and fantasy.

Q&A 

Ahead of this weekend’s release of The Souvenir Part II, Preston Barta of the Denton Record-Chronicle spoke with writer-director Joanna Hogg. In the transcribed interview below, we discuss the meta nature of the film, telling imagery and how stories can have different impacts at different life stages.

The following is a transcript of an interview conducted on Oct. 29. Some of the questions and answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.

Preston Barta: What’s funny is after watching Part II, I feel so compelled to ask you about your creative process because that’s what this chapter is all about. But then I remembered that discussion you had with Martin Scorsese on the A24 Podcast about the subject. So, now I’m hesitant to ask because I don’t want to chip away at your craft.

Joanna Hogg: Ah, that's very good. Yeah, because it is a funny thing. You don't want to pull it apart too much because it's such a precious thing.

Is it easier to talk about your work with both parts complete?

​​I think it gets harder to talk about rather than easier, oddly enough. Also, as more time passes between finishing the film and then what I'm doing now, it becomes more difficult, I think. I feel this, at this moment in time, because I'm concentrating on another story and another set of characters.

Do you think these films created a healthier relationship with your younger self, in terms of you reflecting on your past?

That 20-something version of myself, whether it's actually me or [Swinton Byrne] playing Julie — I don’t know. It sort of feels far away. Saying that to you now makes me feel a little nostalgic for that time. I think every time I think about being in my 20s, in 1980s London, there's a sudden amount of nostalgia that comes in and a certain amount of feeling like, "I'm sorry. I'm not sorry to not be 25 anymore, but I'm sorry that so many things have changed since then," which may be not so good and make that time even more special in a way.

One of the things that I appreciate about these two films is how they serve as grand appreciators of the many art forms. It shows how our pains, truths and experiences can create some of the most meaningful art, whether it’s still photography (something I know you engage in), film (obviously) and poetry (when looking at the structure and how certain images pop up frequently). And then there’s the central art piece that connected Julie and Anthony. What do you creatively plug into these days to inform these creative decisions?

Wow. I think I try to lean in as much as possible, whether it's painting or otherwise. I don't read poetry so much. I feel I should read it more — literature or something. Mostly I just observe life and fully experience what’s going on in a particular moment in time. Sometimes being in a bus and looking at someone else, how they behave, how they eat their sandwich or how they talk to their neighbor. It's these observations of things happening in front of me rather than someone else's representation of that. I think that feeds me the most creatively.

Do you have a particular area that you thrive in creatively the most when putting pen to paper?

Well, it varies. Of course, we've been very restricted about where we've been able to go. So, normally I would be writing in a cafe, and I don't have one cafe in London that I work in. I like to change it. I like to mix it up a bit. I'll work in different places because in different places, I'll see different things. I'll experience different things because it's not just looking down at the notebook. It's also seeing what's going on around me. I like to be out in the world when I'm creating and writing. It's all part of the process.

I mentioned how certain images pop up throughout your work. One that’s apparent is the mirror. There’s that mirror in Julie’s apartment. In the first film, you show the mirror during literal moments of reflection. But there are also breaks or separations of the mirror, and how it’s framed illustrates Julie’s headspace. Were you challenged to continue exploring that item here in the second chapter? Or did you look at other subtle ways to connect the two films through images?

Yeah. Well, some of that came out of a very practical desire to mirror — no pun intended — the owner and the arrangement of my own flat at that time. I had a wall of mirrors in it. To have this mirror present in Julie's life for a certain number of years, it suddenly not only represented something I experienced, but it also had some sort of psychological element to it. There was something about Julie's self-consciousness and lack of confidence. Getting rid of the reflection, getting rid of the mirror that her mother remarks upon in Part II became a sort of necessary psychological development, in a way. Initially, it was just an idea to reflect my own experience.

I did want to ask about the title itself. When I saw the first film, I went on this journey to discover its meaning. I arrived at it being this gift of experience — the experience to grow and for Julie to get outside her head and find her unique voice. And the meaning here is a bit different, and I don’t want to spoil what it is. But do you feel that these films and the experience of making them will offer you more gifts and souvenirs as you become older?

Oh, that’s hard. I don't know if I know that yet, really. The experience of making these films was so intense. It certainly opens up ideas: "Oh, I'd like to pursue that idea a little bit more." But it's not necessarily to do with my own personal experience in the film. Maybe it's more to do with what I take away from observing the other characters. I think there's a certain character I'd like to see more of in another film in a different way.

I'm not quite sure if I'm answering your question exactly, but I definitely enjoyed this, what feels like a bigger story in relation to my other films than I'd done before and where I've got a lot of characters whose journeys I'm really interested in.

​​Sometimes it's the frustration of making a single film. In this case, it's two films. So, you get double the chance to expand on those who seem like peripheral characters. I can only do so much with the character in a film or two films, and then I want to take them further somewhere else, but that remains to be seen.

Souvenir_4

Richard Ayoade is a multi-award winning comedian, actor, writer and director. The success of Garth Marenghi’s 'Dark Place' (which he co-wrote, directed and starred in) was followed by his BAFTA award winning role in 'The IT Crowd,' and numerous other TV credits including 'The Mighty Boosh.' Ayoade wrote and directed the BAFTA nominated film 'Submarine' and wrote and directed 'The Double' starring Jesse Eisenberg. He has released three books, 'Ayoade on Ayoade', 'The Grip of Film' and 'Ayoade on Top,' all published by Faber & Faber.

I thought of that because I love that sequence in Part II when Julie’s being interviewed, and she says, “I hope I have something to say in my 30s.” I thought of the reverse of that: What will I be able to grasp and understand in my 30s? I’m in my 30s now, but I was at Julie’s life stage a few years ago. I’m a parent now, too, and I take in information differently. So, I often think about what films will say to me as I become older, Like this film as I go through the grieving process on a more intense level. 

Wow. That's so interesting. These different reflections continuing on that theme, and also that thing that Julie says in Part II about making films, experiencing more of life when she makes films in her 30s. That was something that I asked [Swinton Byrne] to say, but I'm not sure I understood what I meant when I said that at the time. It was something. I don't know what ideas I had or what I might be doing in my 30s then. I'm not sure if I could see like you and what you've just described. I don't think I could see very far into the future or have a sense of what would be going on.

So, do you think this film would be very different if you had made it in your 30s, closer to when you went through these experiences? 

Completely. I'm not sure I would've been able to. I would've tried and failed, I think. I still don't feel like I've really grown up, but I'm a bit more grown up than I was then in terms of my ideas about the world. It's hard to say, but I think it would've been a slimmer volume if I had made it then.

I want to bring up two different lines. One comes from Part I — and it’s when Anthony tells Julie, “We don't want to just see life played out as is [in a film]. We wanna see life as it is experienced.” That line always stuck with me because I feel like it encapsulates the film quite well. And then there’s one in Part II when Richard Ayoade’s character asks Julie if she has resisted the temptation to be obvious. It's another great line that I feel captures Part II, because you could have made an obvious sequel, but that’s not the case. Did you notice the weight of those lines?

Well, I wanted Anthony in Part I to say this thing about making a film not just from what you see in life, but sort of using your imagination as well. I wanted that thing that he says to her to then filter through her in Part II. But then, when you quote it back to me, I have to think about it again like you. I think these sentences or these ideas are so dense with different interpretations and meanings. Maybe I'm just a very slow person, but I will sometimes write something in a notebook and then, in a way, understand it all over again when I see it written down again. There's so many angles and ways of interpreting things. It's not straightforward, but I do let my performers say things in their own words. There'll be a sort of sense that I want, and then it is filtered through them.

Because you asked me earlier what I might be taking for myself into the future after making these films, I think one can create something true using one's imagination, maybe even more so. So, that can become a little bit of my mantra for the future.

PRESTON BARTA is a member of the Critics Choice Association and the Dallas-Fort Worth Film Critics Association. Read his work here, on FreshFiction.tv and on RottenTomatoes.com. Follow him on Twitter at @PrestonBarta.