Morphing an autobiographical vision into a meta text is a daring move. As a result, Joanna Hogg’s sequel to her 2019 indie hit doesn’t totally avoid an air of self-importance as the plot slowly unveils itself to be about, at least in part, the making of The Souvenir. But for every eyeroll-inducing pretension, there’s an undeniable quality to the film Hogg has made. Part II is more cinematic than its predecessor, and even borders on experimental in terms of how we tell long-form stories on the silver screen.
Yet, still being a sequel, the visual style largely remains the same. Long, static takes of soft conversations and a micro approach to the action on screen will be familiar to all who saw the original, as to be expected. The plot catches up with Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne) as she mourns the suicide of her romantic partner in the first film, Anthony (Tom Burke). His death hangs over the film like a shadow, placing pints of grief to most of Julie’s actions and interactions.
But without the toxic relationship that devolved throughout the first, the second still sees her moving through film school as she tries to find something genuine within her ideas. The search for art in her own life defines Julie to her core—a fascinating facet of the film considering Hogg’s blatant autobiographical storytelling. Does this director see her younger self as a hack? That exploration occasionally finds solid ground throughout Part II, and for much of it, solid ground is exactly what it needs.
The more frustrating points are made when, as with the original, the film fails to drum up much excitement. Both Souvenir films sometimes play like a song without a beat. The lack of rhythm gives them a life-like quality while also rendering them incredibly dry. However, Hogg’s minimalist, matter-of-fact style shifts into something excitingly surreal for Part II’s third act. The film within the film allows the end note of this series to come more alive than it seemed Hogg would allow it to be.
Still, the consistent appeal throughout remains Swinton Byrne. This is a stunning, vulnerable performance that legitimately challenges the autobiography as a complex inner study. She is an undeniably powerful performer capable of articulating the film’s themes without sacrificing a very necessary humanity to make these films work. Also great, with little surprise, is Tilda Swinton (her costar’s real-life mother) as Julie’s mother. Against type, she serves as Julie’s root to reality, a person so far outside her film school world that she remembers to be human between all her fruitless searching for meaning.
Together, they are enough to make The Souvenir Part II an emotional journey worth going on. Though Hogg conceived the story in two parts pretty much from the get-go, the sequel and the original both work as wholly independent works. This film is not so much necessary to make the first work as it is a unique study all on its own. The sequel is more of an accent to the original than a lift, and that’s fine. When this one works, it’s stronger than its predecessor. It just doesn’t always work. But that doesn’t take away from the fact that Hogg has achieved something pretty unique showing an impressive vulnerability, and yes, pretension, as she dives headfirst into her own past. As a single expression, the films feel like they offer their maker more meaning than the connotation of their namesake ever could.