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With ‘The Souvenir Part II,’ cult filmmaker Joanna Hogg suggests the promise of great things to come

Honor Swinton Byrne in “The Souvenir Part II.” (Josh Barrett/A24)
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(2.5 stars)

British filmmaker Joanna Hogg had been something of a cult favorite among critics when she achieved popular recognition in 2019 with “The Souvenir,” an autobiographical but also fascinatingly abstract meditation on an ill-fated relationship between budding filmmaker Julie Harte (Honor Swinton Byrne) and a worldly older man named Anthony (Tom Burke).

‘The Souvenir’ recalls a turbulent relationship through 20/20 hindsight

“The Souvenir Part II” is less a sequel than a continuation and ambitious elaboration on Julie’s story, as she processes the loss of Anthony, a man who, in his absence, Julie realizes she never genuinely knew, and now will never entirely understand. She seeks comfort with her eternally patient and understanding parents (Tilda Swinton, who is Swinton Byrne’s real-life mother, and James Spencer Ashworth), who cosset her in the reassuring comfort of their plush country home. She pays a tearful visit to Anthony’s parents, as well as to figures from the more shadowy precincts of his past. She even sees a parapsychologist, who delivers her otherworldly observations with an appealing combination of warmth and tart, no-nonsense straightforwardness.

Still seeking closure, Julie decides to make her love affair with Anthony the subject of her student film — at which point “The Souvenir Part II” becomes a delicate, somewhat maddeningly solipsistic portrait of a young artist discovering her voice and learning to fight for it.

In such previous films as “Archipelago” (2011) and “Exhibition” (2014), Hogg demonstrated prodigious gifts as a formalist, paying close attention to composition and framing, often portraying her protagonists in wide master shots, making them part of their environments and giving them space to reveal their characters with full, balletic expression.

She does the same thing in “The Souvenir Part II,” revealing the same keenly observant eye: Swinton Byrne’s Julie moves through a landscape that feels deeply personal to Hogg — the Hartes’ elegant couches casually covered to protect them from dog hair; Julie’s boxily generic starter apartment — and instantly recognizable. And, for a film about a young woman processing grief, “The Souvenir Part II” is studded with welcome moments of humor, especially when it comes to the thesis films Julie works on with her fellow classmates: Patrick (Richard Ayoade), whom viewers will remember from the first installment announcing that there are no great British musicals, is now working on one of his own, pretentiously describing it as “Movement! Music! Montage!” (all the while gesturing with his ever-present cigarette, surely a Gaulois). Another work-in-progress features every trope in the implied-coolness handbook, from the sleek femme fatale in a cherry-red sports car to her spike-heeled shoes and the gun in her hand.

If Hogg casts a playfully jaundiced eye toward all the posturing and posing, she’s far more sympathetic to Julie as she tries to bring her own sensibility into focus. When she comes to a meeting with her advisers bearing a wispy screenplay held together with a romantic red ribbon, they express doubts about her “professional practice.” Later, during production, she’s excoriated by a cinematographer complaining about the lack of shot lists and a shooting script.

There are times when viewers may think Julie’s detractors have a point. She remains infuriatingly passive in the midst of a potential crew rebellion; when she dares to speak up, it’s almost apologetically, with Swinton Byrne delivering her presumably improvised lines with halting self-corrections and double-backs. As she tries to re-create her relationship with Anthony on screen, an actor tells her that her idealized version of events is getting in the way of his own artistic truth.

At its weakest, “The Souvenir Part II” falls into a form of ego-soothing inertia: Julie is such a paragon of good intentions, suppressed longing and artistic sensitivity, and she moves so numbly from one quietly polite encounter to the next, that Hogg seems to be making a film every bit as self-protective and undisciplined as the one her heroine seems to be on her way to making.

Things get more interesting as Julie plunges deeper into her project, and the final sequences prove that both Hogg and her avatar have been in firm control all along. (Fans of Powell and Pressburger: Brace yourselves.) “The Souvenir Part II” may bring an end to the introduction of a marvelous filmmaker to a wider world. But far more promisingly, it suggests what, with luck, will be an exhilarating next chapter.

R. At area theaters. Contains strong sexuality and coarse language. 108 minutes.

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