Joanna Hogg continues the quietly moving story of a young woman’s recovery from abuse and finding solace in art.
With her abuser out of her life, one would think it’d be easier for Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne) to move from day to day. In some ways, it is; she’s no longer directly in the clutches of Anthony’s (Tom Burke) patterns of insults, flattery, and disposal. He’s now dead as a result of his drug addiction. She, however, still lives with his memory. She discusses him with her psychologist (Gail Ferguson) just as often as others refer to his passing as a “loss.” But he’s still there: in her mind, in her health, in her art. Now, in The Souvenir Part II, Julie is finalizing her graduation film for school, repurposing and compartmentalizing her emotions into her work.
The problem is that her emotions, much like her art or art itself, don’t exist in a vacuum. Her intent to cleanse herself of what someone else did to her is to implicate others along the way. Is moving along admirable? Of course. It’s even, to use a word those who’ve never endured such emotional turmoil may, “brave.” That said, to bring her work to fruition, she projects pain onto others. Audiences may live it as spectators later on, but her crew has to help construct it. The work itself has to be just right to do her story justice; after all, processing one’s past smoothly is to not process it at all. But, for others, Julie’s constantly oscillating mind just causes more hoops for those behind the scenes to jump through.
Those in front of the camera find their writer/director to be unprofessional and indecisive. Those behind the scenes see her as selfish—solipsistic, even. The faculty and film board criticize her script, extemporaneous and void of traditional structure, as incoherent. The thing is that Julie wants to show life as she experiences it, not as it happens. The thing is that Julie says so partly because that specific sentiment was that of her abuser, a pearl of wisdom to take back and refract. As experienced, life is hard, misty, and messy. As executed, The Souvenir Part II is similar in order to complement its metatext emotionally and thematically.
Writer/director Joanna Hogg develops her style of its predecessor, etching out locales and internal arcs. Better yet, her and editor Helle le Fevre’s uses of hard cuts sectionalize its moments of beauty. There’s a sense of ephemerality that comes into itself as the film progresses. It’s only when those moments—fog, rain, or other trappings of British cinema the movie jokes about—are cut off do they accrue their own moments of texture. They’re limited. They, as asides against Julie’s quest for growth and artistic merit, are the setting as much as those around her are. And while Julie’s personal life might seem more fragmented than it was before her abuser’s death, sometimes it’s easier to sit with the ghost of one’s past.
It shows itself in the forms of others: a quick hookup, a pretentious peer, the empty spaces during moments with her parents (Tilda Swinton and James Spencer Ashworth). Yet what sets The Souvenir Part II apart is that what could easily play as coy instead cauterizes whatever possible impulses may work against it overall. The editing eventually gives into an emotional repetition honest to the subject matter. Hogg’s script, meanwhile, is what propels Julie’s arc, her growth bubbling by way of her own agency as much as it does out of sheer happenstance. One’s maturity, as internal as it is, is a product of its environment just like the person who houses it.
By the time The Souvenir Part II ends, Hogg has never shown us her protagonist’s film. In its place are blurrings of reality, the artistic process, and curlicues of Julie’s consciousness. DP David Raedeker casts a swirl of 16mm, 35mm, and digital photography, flattening and rounding out aspects of this unlikely duology. Ultimately, it’s something unexpectedly deft: self-reflexive in both its humor and pathos while building upon what came in the first installment. Hogg’s use of Julie’s economic and social privilege as a shorthand for emotional connection by the end is the picture’s only real myopia; it’s truly hard to connect with her then.
That aside, this is an effort that has no need to draw attention to itself, and it’s all the better for it. After all, Julie and others in her circumstance wouldn’t do that either. That past is in virtually everything they process, everything they see. Looking away from it is what lets the farce fester. Looking at it, listening to it, is what lets the ghost die.
The Souvenir Part II is now playing in theaters.