A beloved ceramic sugar bowl drops from the mantelpiece in “The Souvenir Part II,” and for a few seconds, it’s as if the world itself has shattered and split open. All the air is sucked from the room, replaced with a thick, still silence of devastation, apology and irrational fury. It doesn’t last: It’s just a sugar bowl, after all. Its aggrieved owner Rosalind (Tilda Swinton) briskly tidies up the shards, muttering with crisp English restraint that it doesn’t matter at all, and seems not to mean a word of it. Her daughter Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne), the bowl’s accidental assassin, over-grovels in response, and it’s clear she’s not quite saying what she feels either.
Everything is fine and nothing is right in Joanna Hogg’s film, a dazzling, fragile follow-up to her semi-autobiographical coming-of-age stunner from 2019, which ended on the sudden death of Julie’s lover — a tragedy that bleeds through this continuation of her story in ways both blunt and brutally unspoken. How do people who can’t speak plainly about breaking a trinket grieve a human loss? In both cases, pieces are picked up and practically reassembled, minimizing the period of visible, unfixed breakage, as if there’s nothing so important as the appearance of going on.
Embattled film student Julie attempts to filter her grief into a graduation short about the deceased, only to find herself stifled and unstuck: Artistically interpreting what you haven’t emotionally processed is an impossible ask of even the most seasoned creator. But through a fine gauze of fiction and the passage of 30-plus years, Hogg has processed, interpreted and then some. Though fully distinct in its thematic and aesthetic fixations, “The Souvenir Part II” abuts its predecessor to form one of the medium’s most intimate, expressive portraits of the artist as a young woman — a mirror tilted just enough away from the filmmaker that the audience, too, can catch itself in the glass. With A24 once more distributing Stateside, this time off a bow in Directors’ Fortnight at Cannes, “Part II” will surely retain the first film’s select but devoted following.
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“I don’t want to show life as it plays out in real time,” a frustrated Julie says to a uniformly male, middle-aged panel of film school teachers, as they ruthlessly pick apart her graduation film treatment. “I want to show life as I experience it.” Keen-eared fans of “The Souvenir” will recognize the line as a paraphrase of one spoken by her late boyfriend Anthony (so brilliantly played by Tom Burke in the first film, and a conspicuously absent ghost of a presence here). “We don’t want to see life played out as it is, we want to see it as it is experienced in this soft machine,” he told her, after she fumblingly explained her idea for a social realist film about working-class life in the Sunderland docks.
Julie’s creative 180-degree turn — the Sunderland script has been dropped, to her tutors’ consternation, as her gaze turns inward — may seem a sign of increased, self-aware maturity, but it also points to a certain porousness in the upper-class 24-year-old’s sheltered worldview. Anthony may be dead of a heroin overdose, but she remains in thrall to him, awestruck and grief-stricken at once.
Filming life as Julie experiences it turns out to be easier said than done, however. The cast and crew of her graduation project have a hard time perceiving her reality, for starters, and the ensuing on-set squabbles account for much of the film’s surprisingly abundant, jagged comedy. A kindly editor (Joe Alwyn, in a wry, tender cameo) takes a more diplomatic approach to Julie’s idiosyncratic process, while Hogg leaves it for the viewer to intuit whether her young alter ego is in over her head or not.
We never see Julie’s film-within-the-film, though perhaps we see the one in her mind. In the sequel’s most unexpected, exhilarating formal rupture, Hogg breaks into a surreal, extended dream ballet — equal parts Lewis Carroll, Powell and Pressburger, and Derek Jarman — that gives sound, shape and saturated color to the unformed grief knotting Julie’s stomach. In this and other moments of untethered invention and daring, “The Souvenir Part II” itself lives up to Julie and Anthony’s shared credo: It feels, for all its strangeness and irregularity, very much its maker’s stream-of-consciousness experience of the world, down to the disorienting stop-start rhythms of its ’80s synthpop-heavy soundtrack.
Editor Helle le Fevre likewise knows the value of hard, abrupt cuts, cropping scenes short just as they begin to crescendo, and brusquely defining the two halves of Julie’s life that she’s keen to keep separate: the affected bohemianism of her student realm, cushioned as it is by a family-owned apartment in London’s well-heeled Knightsbridge district, and the conservative, bourgeois comforts of her family home in the countryside, where her well-meaning but out-of-touch parents (wonderfully played by Swinton and James Spencer Ashworth) offer her endless tea and curtailed sympathy. (As in the first, the film’s class politics are tacitly pointed and self-effacing.) David Raedeker’s limpid, watercolored lensing also notes the contrast: Pastel-postcard shots of the English landscape in spring bloom seem almost banally symbolic of renewed life, but the more complex lighting and composition of scenes at film school and Julie’s apartment tell another, more troubled story.
Amid all this intricate layering of film language, however, Hogg equally entrusts her story to her actors and their faces — more so than Julie, whose project entangles her in various versions of herself. (Ariane Labed plays the fellow film student she casts as her proxy; Harris Dickinson cleverly represents the actor wildly miscast as Anthony.) In the first film, 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.
From the set of the ambitious, expensive musical he’s shooting, Ayoade’s character loftily says that he wants his film to be a widescreen spectacle, “instead of standing in the drizzling rain, like every other fucking British film ever made.” It’s a moment of wily self-critique from Hogg, a filmmaker who certainly knows her way around a good, bleak, British drizzle, but who can find unusual breadth and beauty in everyday moments of despair — be they seismic, or as small as broken crockery.
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