The Souvenir | Written and Directed by Joanna Hogg | 120 min |▲▲▲▲△ | On Demand
A version of this review was originally posted as part of a look at Carbon Arc Cinema’s fall 2019 season.
Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne) is a London film student living in swanky 1980s Knightbridge, but managing expenses with roomies. She meets Anthony (Tom Burke), a caustic, intellectual, and perhaps toxic man. Their connection is cerebral and austere at first, but when they get closer they become codependent, and we start to see evidence of drug addiction and deceit.
Written and directed by Joanna Hogg, the film is a fictionalized account of her youth, and she does something extraordinary with the film — it feels authentic because its authorial voice seems raw and earnest, as if it were the product of a young and inexperienced filmmaker — and Hogg is neither of those things.
For example, she includes pastoral shots of the English countryside overlaid with poetry, and her frequent digressions into Julie’s film shoots directly comment on the film we’re watching, adding a level of self-consciousness one might expect from a first timer looking to be clever. She knows what she’s doing, though.
What’s surprising is how much this positively adds to the experience. The Souvenir is a picture edited in a scattershot, vignette-heavy fashion inspired by 1960s British social realism pictures where frequently a female lead would get herself into a lot of trouble due to a lack of self-esteem, inexperience, and bad men.
It’s occasionally frustrating — you’ll want to yell at the screen at Julie to smarten up — but it casts a unique spell unlike anything we’ve seen from British cinema in some time.
The Souvenir Part II | Written and Directed by Joanna Hogg | 107 min | ▲▲▲▲△ | On Demand
How many British indie pictures get a sequel? Seems weirdly counterintuitive, but here we are.
This one follows right after the events of the first film: Anthony is out of the picture. Julie is shaken by all that’s happened. She still has a film degree to finish, and so pushes forward with that, press-ganging her fellow classmates into making her movie.
Her concept has entirely changed since the last film — she wants to make sense of her own trauma, so she’s going to make a movie about her and Anthony’s relationship. This while hitting up her mother for more money to get her film made. (Tilda Swinton, Honor Swinton Byrne’s actual mother in RL, too, is brilliant in these films playing perhaps the most conservative, “normal” character in her stellar career of weirdos.)
So, Hogg’s making a movie within a movie, which is ostensibly the movie that precedes this movie. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen that done before — it’s strangely dazzling.
And Hogg makes a meal of the meta. I will resist saying too much, but when we finally get to see Julie’s film it’s a little like Being John Malkovich — it takes a quantum leap into the surreal through the self-referencing layers of this story.
We also get a welcome bit more of Richard Ayoade’s charming but altogether obnoxious film director when Julie gets work on his set. (He appears to be making Absolute Beginners, which makes me wonder if he’s meant to be a twist on Julien Temple.)
We also get Charlie Heaton working in a part a lot closer to his actual accent than we’re accustomed to seeing with him in Stranger Things. He plays an actor Julie takes to bed while she’s on her period, which leads to a slightly messy, though happy, ending.
Another reason to watch these movies is if you’re a fan of 1980s fashions. Somehow Hogg chooses gear that doesn’t look ridiculous 35 years on, and that’s saying something. Swinton Byrne’s baggy coat, trousers, that her father thinks are pajamas, and other glittery wear are all prominent but entirely cool looking. (I was there, and let me tell you it didn’t tend to look that good.)
All of this is a whole lot more playful than the first part of The Souvenir, which was understandably a lot heavier given the central relationship and Julie’s sustained delusions about Anthony’s problems.
Here we do continue to get a dose of Julie’s naiveté — as well as the examples of the sexism that comes when a young woman makes a film with a bunch of blokes but shows any measure of doubt in her decision-making — but with all of Anthony’s awfulness in the rear view the film, and the film within the film, channel the more hopeful theme of healing through art.
A bit of a mea culpa to everyone who watched this on the Carbon Arc screening in early December. When I introduced the film I said that based on what I’d heard I didn’t think you needed to have seen the first film to appreciate the second. I take that back and apologize: Now I’m not sure what you’d make of Part II if you hadn’t seen the first as it so relentlessly comments on what went before.
Taken as a pair Hogg’s films are a genuine achievement.