‘The Souvenir Part II’ Review: Life, as She Imagines It

Deep into “The Souvenir Part II,” a young woman walks through a hall of mirrors as if in a dream. It is a freighted moment for the character, a film student whose lover died not long ago. After struggling with her grief and her art, she seems on the cusp of a creative breakthrough: She’s made her graduate movie and her mother, father and friends are there to see it. As she walks among her mirrored reflections, she also seems to be passing her many different selves — the dutiful daughter, the drifting student, the bereft survivor — now all in service to her role as an artist.

The latest from the British filmmaker Joanna Hogg, “Souvenir Part II” is a portrait of a young artist. It’s about life and art, inspiration and process, growing and becoming. And while it is familiar in many ways, it also isn’t the usual bleating about art and artists partly because most such stories are about men, those tortured, mad geniuses whose work dominates culture, filling museums and biopics. This, by contrast, is the story of a recognizably faltering young woman who tells her disapproving male professors that her film will be about “life as I imagine it” — and then makes good on her statement of intent.

“Part II” picks up more or less where Hogg’s 2019 art-house favorite “The Souvenir” ends. Set in Britain in the early 1980s, the first movie finds Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne) in film school, generously supported by her parents. The story’s focus, though, and much of her energy and time are dedicated to her exciting, progressively fraught affair with an enigmatic dissembler, Anthony (Tom Burke), who charms, seduces and robs her. Ultimately, he overdoses on heroin in a bathroom of the museum where he showed her the Fragonard painting that gives the film its title. “Souvenir” ends with a snippet of romantic poetry and Julie walking off a soundstage into the day.

That first story has its obvious attractions, notably the irresistible appeal of tragic love, with its messy beds and broken hearts. But it is Hogg’s filmmaking — her narrative and stylistic choices, the precision of her framing, the stillness of her images and how she withholds information — that distinguishes “Souvenir” and her other movies. She’s found her own way at the crossroads of art cinema and the mainstream, and particularly striking is how she handles time and transitions. Most filmmakers smooth out scenes so they seamlessly flow into a whole; Hogg likes to cut off songs, as if snapping off a radio, and abruptly shift from here to there — just as we do in life.

When the sequel opens, Julie is lying in bed, back at her parents’ immaculately appointed country home. She’s still in mourning and still seeking refuge with her father, William (James Spencer Ashworth), and her mother, Rosalind (a brilliant Tilda Swinton, Swinton Byrne’s real mother). They’re slightly baffled by their daughter’s life but are kind, gentle and unflaggingly supportive. Back in her own world, Julie hangs out with her friends, spends time on other people’s film shoots and works on her grad project. She also tries to make sense of Anthony, his life and death, and the churning, complex feelings that he left in his wake. She misses the intimacy of the man she calls a “mysterious leader.”

“Part II” misses him, too — specifically it misses Burke’s charisma and talent, which worked with Swinton Byrne’s awkward hesitancy in the first film, creating a friction that suited the dynamics of their characters’ relationship. Swinton Byrne presents a likable, sympathetic figure (you’re certainly drawn to the character), and has a jutting, sculptural face that demands your attention. But she isn’t skilled enough to create a persuasive inner life for Julie, and because Hogg avoids scripted exposition, her actress can’t lean on the dialogue to help fill in the blanks. Julie’s uncertainty, her doubts and mistakes are crucial to “Souvenir Part II,” but Swinton Byrne’s wan performance is an uninteresting placeholder for an idea.

Eventually and with much stumbling, Julie’s grad film comes into focus; she begins shooting it, basing it on her relationship with Anthony. Embracing a rigorous fidelity to her past, she builds an exact replica of her flat and dresses the male lead in Anthony’s housecoat. Movies about moviemaking are rarely as interesting as their makers think, but Julie’s process does illuminate the character and Hogg’s autobiographical intentions. Julie frets, worries, changes her mind, confusing her actors and (understandably) infuriating her cinematographer. But all of these efforts go on far too long and Julie wears out your patience, as does Hogg’s emphasis on this belabored interlude.

Even so, Hogg’s filmmaking presents its own forceful draw and is the reason I watched “Souvenir Part II” again. The second time, I paid closer attention to Julie’s grad film, a fantastical dream of a movie that is a very serious, amusingly arty pastiche of overwrought symbolism and cinematic allusions (“The Lady From Shanghai,” “The Red Shoes”). It’s poignantly terrible, but its badness is immaterial to Hogg’s project. Julie has tapped everything that she has — her images and experiences, her being, seeing, feeling — and in doing so she’s irrevocably blurred the divide between life and art. She lived, made her movie, and will keep on doing both in all the Joanna Hogg movies to come.

The Souvenir Part II
Rated R for language and adult sexuality. Running time: 1 hour 46 minutes. In theaters.

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