Editor’s note: This review was originally published at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival. A24 releases the film in theaters on Friday, October 29.
Joanna Hogg’s miraculous 2019 cine-memoir “The Souvenir” ends with its posh, navel-gazing, and newly grief-stricken heroine — a 25-year-old film student in 1980s London — standing on the precipice of herself. Her name is Julie Harte, she’s played by Honor Swinton Byrne with the raw honesty of someone feeling her way through a solar eclipse, and she’s following in Hogg’s uncertain footsteps with the shaky confidence of someone who’s seen “I Know Where I’m Going!” enough times to convince herself that she might. She even lives in an immaculate re-creation of the writer-director’s former apartment, built on a soundstage and surrounded by massive blow-ups of the photos Hogg once snapped through the windows of that flat.
Julie has been rattled out of her cage by the death of her heroin-addicted first love (Tom Burke). And like Hogg, she’s determined to oxidize her pain into something productive. “Someone I loved once gave me a box full of darkness,” the poet Mary Oliver once wrote. “It took me years to understand that this, too, was a gift.” By the time she turns her face to the camera in the film’s shattering penultimate shot — wiser, wounded — Julie appears ready to make the most of the souvenir that her late Anthony left behind.
The story could have ended there. Hogg’s didn’t, of course, but “The Souvenir” reveals enough of her trajectory for viewers to trace how she eventually poked through the cocoon of her own privilege and spread her wings as one of the most creatively unbound British filmmakers of the last 30 years. And yet, the project was always intended as a diptych. So far as Hogg was concerned, the first installment was a call in need of a response. It wasn’t enough to build a diorama-like dissection of her formative years, or to eke some lasting beauty from her most painful memories; it wasn’t enough for Anthony to gift Julie a box of darkness, she would have to open it and shine her light inside.
And so we arrive at “The Souvenir Part II,” an extraordinary work of meta-fiction which continues where the previous film left off, and subverts the fastidiousness of its construction to illuminate why Hogg felt the need to make it in the first place. As vulnerable as its predecessor and textured with the same velvet sense of becoming, “Part II” adds new layers of depth and distance to the looking glass of Hogg’s self-reflection, as it follows Julie through the fraught process of making her graduation film… a short which just so happens to be the tragic story of a 25-year-old London girl’s relationship with an older heroic addict.
Not only is the set in Julie’s film virtually identical to the apartment from “The Souvenir,” it is the apartment from “The Souvenir,” only this time the camera pulls back to reveal the airplane hanger that surrounds it. In essence, Hogg is making a movie about her younger self making a movie about her younger self’s worst heartbreak, which is effectively a remake of the previous movie that Hogg made (the press notes adroitly refer to “Part II” as “a deconstruction of a reconstruction”). And while the view through that infinity mirror of romantic dramas isn’t nearly as confusing as it might sound on paper, or at all, it also further complicates itself in dazzling fashion by the end, as slavish re-creation gives way to a richer synthesis of memory and imagination.
It was inevitable that Julie was going to ditch the Sunderland family drama she was cooking up in “Part I” and make some art out of her own story instead, but her personal connection to the material only adds to the pressure of getting it right. Julie is still deep in the throes of grieving when the film begins, having retreated from the world to her parents’ house in pastoral Norfolk; her mom is gloriously reprieved by a brittle sweet Tilda Swinton (the “Swinton” of Honor Swinton Byrne), while her father is played with note-perfect aloofness by first-time actor and local farmer James Spencer Ashworth. In addition to her loss, Julie is confronted with a possible souvenir of a different kind: Her period is late.
Julie’s film school chums, meanwhile, are back in the big city and speeding full steam ahead. A number of her friends return from the previous film and with far more screen time than before, especially Garance (Ariane Labed, whose resemblance to Byrne does not go unnoticed) and Patrick (the great Richard Ayoade, absolutely off the chain as a diva auteur in training). The confidence — sometimes arrogance — they have about their lavish thesis projects would be enough to rattle anyone, even if most of Julie’s colleague are far more supportive than the fuddy duddy faculty who doesn’t understand her generative process (which, of course, is also Hogg’s process).
There are new faces as well, most of them belonging to handsome boys. Jim (“Stranger Things” breakout and Harry Styles lookalike Charlie Heaton) doesn’t seem to mind that Julie is emotionally unavailable, and their flirtation leads to a match cut for the ages. A lanky heartthrob named Pete (Harris Dickinson, of “Beach Rats” fame) is cast in the Anthony role of Julie’s film, though Hogg curiously elides any “Vertigo”-like anxiety that seeing another man in her ex-boyfriend’s role might cause, while Joe Alwyn pops in for a splendid two-scene quickie as a kind-hearted student editor.
These people come and go without much fanfare, as “The Souvenir Part II” is — like its predecessor, if slightly less so — a film broken into fragments of memory, Julie’s arc scattered across a pointillistic constellation of brief moments special enough to resonate for a lifetime. Byrne’s deeply felt performance ensures that all those moments share a consistent gravity between them. As Labed describes one of the actresses who might play Julie in the film within the film: “She’s vulnerable but a bit noble.” She’s also capable of forcing a smile that conveys the intense unknowingness of someone who’s struggling to make out their own shape. Is she missing Anthony, or is it that she’s missing the part of herself that he illuminated for her? Julie may not know how to meaningfully frame that question for herself, but Hogg ensures that it won’t go unanswered.
Like “The Souvenir” itself (both parts of it), Byrne’s performance gains its power from a steady accumulation of small glimmers. It sees growing up as the process by which — to borrow Patrick’s favorite word — we tessellate ourselves with all the bolts of joy and broken shards of pain we collect along the way. A process by which we sift through an ocean of experience to find a few pearls that string together. And sometimes, if you’re lucky enough to have the mind for it, you get to arrange them in a pattern of your own design.
If Julie initially frustrates her crew by striking to her flashbulb memories of Anthony and mumbling “It’s what happened” whenever anyone challenges her creative decisions, she learns over the course of this film that art can do more than simply launder her lived experience. Julie makes a transcendent memorial to her late boyfriend — a soul-leaves-body sequence that caps Hogg’s project as one of the most timeless and thrillingly alive coming-of-age stories the movies have given us — but she does so in exchange for the greatest gift that he ever gave her.
“We want to see life not as it’s lived,” he tells her in “The Souvenir,” “but as it’s experienced within this soft machine,” and a version of those same words tumble out of Julie’s head when she’s up against a wall in “Part II.” “I don’t want to see life as it was,” she stresses, “I want to see life as I imagine it to be.” Julie recognizes that mantra as a north star for her art, and uses it as her light through the darkness — a light that will take her right through the screen and out the other side.
“The Souvenir Part II” premiered at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival. A24 will release it in the United States.