In The Souvenir, which won a grand jury prize when it premiered at Sundance in 2019, Joanna Hogg revisited a traumatic episode in her own life. The film tells the story of Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne), a young film student in 1980s London who falls for a charming older man, Anthony (Tom Burke). He’s hiding a heroin habit that will eventually kill him. The closing credits promised a Part II, which has now premiered in the Directors’ Fortnight program and is already one of the most enthusiastically reviewed films at Cannes so far.
The opening of The Souvenir Part II finds Julie grieving the loss of Anthony at her family home in Norfolk, where her parents—played once again by Swinton Byrne’s real-life mother, Tilda Swinton, and newcomer James Spencer Ashworth—show as much love and genuine concern as their upper-middle-class upbringing will allow. “For a film that possesses a distinctly European flavor in its character development and light-touch direction, there are moments, of course, when it really couldn’t get more English,” writes Jason Solomons at TheWrap.
When Julie returns to the Knightsbridge apartment in London that she shared with Anthony and to film school, the faculty disapproves of her plans to ditch the social realist drama that was to have been her graduation project for a film based on her doomed two-year-long affair. A friend (Ariane Labed) and a theater actor (Harris Dickinson) play the stand-ins for Julie and Anthony. And she calls the film The Souvenir. “Julie’s emotional recuperation takes place largely on movie sets and on the black-and-white monitors through which she oversees her film’s making,” writes Pat Brown at Slant. “Throughout, Hogg captures not only the intense labor and tension between various craftspeople’s visions on a movie set, but also the intangible exchanges between thought and representation, reality and fiction, that shape the production of such a profoundly personal work of art.”
For all that weighty profundity, though, The Souvenir Part II is also “remarkably elating and light on its feet—at once a comedy of filmmaking egos, a multi-layered exercise in creative therapy, and a grippingly honest confessional,” writes the Telegraph’s Tim Robey. “Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Part II is its sheer buoyancy as a companion piece, springing off the earlier film’s strengths and finding ways to circle back, to reconsider and even critique them. Where Part I had a shimmering poignancy as a tragic love story, this is busy and dazzling: Hogg has never made a funnier piece of work or come to us with such fresh provocations.”
It’s a busy cast, too, and for most reviewers, two performances in particular stand out. “In the first film,” writes Guy Lodge in Variety, “Swinton Byrne played Julie as an appropriately anxious, undefined figure; here, without Tom Burke’s overwhelming presence to contend with, she seizes our attention through quieter means, making the viewer think and listen in tandem with her, and even wresting a sober, reluctant moment of truth from a scene-stealing Richard Ayoade, as the egomaniacal would-be auteur she’ll never be.” Writing for Sight & Sound,Sophie Monks Kaufman finds that Ayoade “delights via a combination of flamboyant outfits and withering lines,” and his character “conducts his sets and himself with the petulant grandiosity of a baby king.”
Behind the camera, “the sophisticated contributions of DP David Raedeker and production designer Stéphane Collonge are indispensable in a film that’s all about the way our gaze is directed, both in movies and in real-life experience,” writes David Rooney in the Hollywood Reporter. Hogg herself is “such a brilliant observer of behavior that she can make the most commonplace, everyday scenes—lunches, walks in the fields with the dogs—seem mysterious and fascinating,” writes Geoffrey Macnab in the Independent. At the Film Stage, Rory O’Connor sees Part II as “a confounding departure for Hogg, an experimental endeavor with hints of Charlie Kaufman and even distant echoes of ’90s Iranian cinema,” while at CineVue, John Bleasdale suggests that “the nearest comparison is perhaps with Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda.”
Having revisited Hogg’s oeuvre, which includes Unrelated (2007), Archipelago (2010), and Exhibition (2013), Leonardo Goi, dispatching to the Notebook, found himself “stunned by how crucial a role art plays in bringing Hogg’s protagonists to a place of self-understanding. From her 1986 student film Caprice all the way to The Souvenir, Hogg’s universe has been dotted with young people struggling to find their bearings, overcome traumas, and start anew. I guess that’s why The Souvenir: Part II felt at once so familiar and definitive. It’s the most eloquent and harrowing summation of themes Hogg has woven into her work since the very start, the kind of sequel that doesn’t just complete a diptych, but makes its predecessor far more meaningful and visceral.”
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