New York 2021 Review: THE SOUVENIR PART II, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Woman
Honor Swinton Byrne stars in a marvelously inventive, self-effacing film, directed by Joanna Hogg, that is also immensely affecting and moving.
At the end of The Souvenir, our protagonist Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne), a film student, was grappling with the death of her charistmatic, destructive and predatory boyfriend Anthony (Tom Burke) and her next chapter in life was just beginning.
In The Souvenir Part II, we pick up right where we left off. The second part of this autobiographical story by director Joanna Hogg has an air of built-in familiarity, like a warm stove on a cold night. Here the mood is uplifting, more celebratory. And it has lots of humor as well, which was lacking in the first film. All the peripheral characters in the first one get more screen time. And its metatextual movie-within-a-movie-within-a-movie gives more depth, reflecting on how we remember/misremember the past with blesmishes and all.
Like her other films, The Souvenir Part II reflects on life lessons and the fact that the only way to learn them is to live through them. It's a beautifully realized and impeccably-acted film. Oh, it also has the best soundtrack of the season.
With Anthony's shadow still largely looming in Julie's life, she is still grieving and suffering greatly with the guilty conscience that she could've somehow saved him. Deep down, she knows she couldn't have, but she very much wants someone else to tell her it wasn't her fault.
In order to graduate from school with her circle of mates, she decides to embark on making a film about her experience with Anthony. When she presents her script to get the funding from school, the faculty committee is less than impressed with her presentation: first of all, her script is held together with red ribbons and doesn't even have scene headings. She also decided to use her fellow student Garance (Adriane Labed), instead of a professional actor to play the lead.
Even though it's based on her life experience, which is a dramatic concession because she originally wanted to make a movie about working-class people in Sunderland, the commitee feels it's out of her character and doesn't see enough connections between the main characters. The irony is, it was the same committee that wanted to stir her away from making a film on the subject that she doesn't know much about.
So, essentially, Julie is (re)making The Souvenir as her graduate film. With school funding for her movie in jeopardy, Julie asks her supportive mom (Tilda Swinton, Byrne's real-life mother) again for fiancial help.
It's not only the school committee's approval that Julie has to deal with. After a grueling pre-production process in choosing actors -- too good looking, need more authenticity, and so forth -- she runs into squables and has to deal with a clash of egos everywhere she turns, mostly due to her inexperience and incompetence. Just like every young filmmaker, she doesn't know what she is doing most of the time!
Hogg, a veteran TV director with decades of experiences, who started her feature film career in 2007, has no qualms about showing her younger self's incongruity and the bullshit persona that twenty-somethings project onto themselves. The hubris of youth is universal and there is no need to be apologetic or embarrassed about it.
Swinton Byrne is great as a naive young woman collecting all the souvenirs in her life in shaping herself as an artist. Tilda Swinton gracefully recedes and disappears into her greying mom role perfectly, playing a woman of privilege tickled by her artistic daughter's endeavor, taking up pottery classes to varying degrees of success.
Richard Aoyade steals the show as Patrick, a pompous older student whose career is just taking off. We needed to see more of him in the first film and now we are richly rewarded here. Patrick is first seen directing a huge musical film production on stage. His egomaniacal behavior is seen on and off the set, shouting at onlookers and reporters, defending his decision to do a musical by pointing his finger at the gloomy London sky.
As a gifted comedian, Aoyade's delivery is pitch perfect as Patrick, an extremely arrogant, yet superbly talented individual who lacks social niceties. Hence, it is he who can blurt out the painful truth as he sees it for Julie to move on after her 'memorial' is done.
A long, fantastical sequence of Julie's thesis film hilariously highlights how an artist sees her creations and how she remembers her experiences versus the reality of what actually happened. The Fellini-esque sequence and out-of-body experience portrayed in Julie's film has nothing in common with how we perceived her relationship with Anthony in the somber The Souvenir, at least in its visual presentation. But it strikes the cord on an emotional level; his death and her heart being shattered into millions of pieces remains true.
All the people we encounter, those little memorable moments we pick up throughout life, shape us and make us who we are. The Souvenir Part II is a celebration of that achievement. It's a marvelously inventive, self-effacing film that is also immensely affecting and moving. Definitely, it's one of the year's best.
Dustin Chang is a freelance writer. His musings and opinions on everything cinema and beyond can be found at www.dustinchang.com
The Souvenir: Part II
- Joanna Hogg
- Joanna Hogg
- Tilda Swinton
- Harris Dickinson
- Joe Alwyn