The arduous, mysterious process of transmogrifying life into art is at the very center of Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir Part II, a semi-autobiographical follow-up to her 2019 The Souvenir. Not exactly a sequel, the film is better understood as the second panel in a cinematic diptych. Inseparable from its companion, it continues and completes what the first one started.
The demure Honor Swinton Byrne once again stars as Julie, an English film student at a posh art school. From the outset, a pall of uncertainty hangs over her as she grieves the unexpected loss of her boyfriend (Tom Burke), a heroin addict who died at the end of the first film. As she processes her feelings for Anthony—a charming, manipulative, tragically selfish older man—she must also contend with her thesis film, which she decides will be a memorial of sorts to her lost love. Easier said than done. The professors on her graduation committee question the validity of her proposal, while she receives bland encouragement from her parents, friends, and, somewhat more meaningfully, a flamboyant film director played with relish by Richard Ayoade.
Movies about the creative process are notoriously difficult to pull off, since spiritual matters naturally resist visualization. But Hogg finds a way around this challenge by simply depicting an artist in pursuit of a subject. Julie goes to parties, sits at a Moviola puzzling over an editing sequence, has a fling with a movie extra, throws up for mysterious reasons, goes home to repair in the sheltering arms of her mom and dad. There is no obvious moral to any of it, nor is there a false romanticization of the subject. The audience is put in the privileged position of seeing a woman in the process of becoming.
The scenes in the film school—with its vivid evocations of how art students socialize and receive feedback from their instructors—feel painstakingly accurate. One deliciously telling detail involves the sign for “Raynam Film School” being replaced by “Raynam Film and Television School.” These are juxtaposed with the warm-hearted, clear-eyed moments at home with her parents (played her real life mother Tilda Swinton and James Spencer Ashworth). Hogg’s novelistic approach to screenwriting outlines the situations and lets the actors improvise the dialogue. This lends each moment a curious, elusive spontaneity that finds a common border with narrative and documentary.
If The Souvenir Part II doesn’t quite reach the heights of its predecessor, it’s for the same reason Julie finds it difficult to finish her thesis: her Anthony has left a void that cannot be easily filled. Though Byrne is a captivating performer perfectly capable of carrying a movie by herself, Burke’s enigmatic performance in part one provided tension and ambiguity that hasn’t been sufficiently replaced here. Anthony does make a cameo in a dream sequence, but this brief appearance merely underscores his importance in this story. Even so, taken as a single work, this film is a significant achievement, a true and affecting portrait of artistic self-discovery. Love, loss, pleasure, pain—it’s all part of life, it’s all a kind of art.