Grief is a difficult thing to parse. In The Souvenir: Part II, Joanna Hogg embraces meta-filmmaking to revisit her own apparent struggle with the death of a loved one, dramatising the way art allowed her to express something beyond words. It’s delightful – a drama movie full of acceptance, understanding, and bittersweet comedy.
Coming off The Souvenir, Julie (Hope Swinton-Byrne), our Hogg stand-in, is at the family home wallowing after the sudden passing of Anthony, her complicated former lover. Mum Rosalind (Tilda Swinton, Hope’s real mother), and dad William (James Spencer Ashworth), dote over her. In the time Julie’s been at film school, Rosalind has taken up pottery, and William – well, William continues to be happy to have either around. They try, and fail, to convince their daughter to stay longer.
Julie has a student film to finish, her final project on which hangs her graduation. She’s considering a bold new direction, drifting away from a steady, workmanlike documentary towards something more avant-garde, emotive, and decidedly harder to sell on paper. Nonetheless, she’s determined, because it’s not really just a film, it’s an encapsulation of someone and what they meant to those around them.
The Souvenir: Part II is more agreeable than its predecessor; lighter and easier to follow. Decoupled from Anthony’s drug abuse, Julie drifts for a time, continually asking people about his last days. The explanation doesn’t change, but hearing his name brings some comfort, like a security blanket that’s too thin for any actual warmth.
Soon she’s back on set with her university friends, talking about the work they’re about to put together. The camera stays close to Julie, watching as she meanders, chats, and laughs. Harder cuts follow her wandering mind, jumping to Richard Ayoade’s Patrick giving a pretentious interview that she interrupts. Patrick is less than enthused, and it becomes apparent not everyone cares about Anthony quite like she does.
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The only music is passive and diegetic: ’80s pop blared over a sound stage, or a stand-in composition on an edit someone’s overseeing. Everything is slightly detached, numbness rolling over scenes and absorbing all the feeling or desire. Occasional therapy sessions punctuate the film, Julie’s counsellor talking her through the process of understanding her loss, and what she might need to do to move forward.
Wanting to be a director, Julie decides her best route is to take what she’s feeling, and put it on 8mm. Despite protests from her lecturers of a high likelihood this will yield a failing grade, she trucks on, supported by her fellow students. At every step, Jaygann Ayeh’s Marland provides counsel and support, a friend who may not understand Julie’s vision, but understands why she needs it to happen.
Their shoot is troublesome, littered with arguments over sudden scene changes and workflow. Julie feels what she wants, but she isn’t sure quite how to get it, frustrating her overworked cinematographers, designers, and runners. The film stays delicate even when heated, Hogg trusting in the younger Swinton’s softness to keep us from turning on her too. It works, complemented by Ayeh, Charlie Heaton’s Jim, and Harris Dickinson’s Pete. All young, hungry, and dedicated to each other.
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At risk of suggesting part one isn’t necessarily worth watching – it is – The Souvenir: Part II does sift through its own emotions in a way that doesn’t require a preamble. Hogg handles loss much the same as Hope Dickson Leach in 2016’s The Levelling, another quiet walk through intense bereavement. They rely on the present moment, neither looking too far back, nor in any great hurry toward the future.
Hogg’s film does stumble in Julie’s finished thesis, a Jodorowsky-esque piece of surrealism that, while beautiful, happens so suddenly it leaves one scratching their head a little. Conversations and jokes about the foibles of art school threaten to alienate viewers unfamiliar with the arthouse media sphere, and the last act spills into that divide.
But that, too, seems purposeful, as Julie comes out the other end intact and more confident in herself as an artist. The final stage of grief is acceptance, and The Souvenir: Part II comes across as an affirmation of what happened, who was there, and the decisions that were needed to grow. Even if it leaves you like Ashworth and the older Swinton, trying but not quite getting Julie’s choices and the pains of being a young creative working it all out, you’ll be nonetheless enamored.
If you’re experiencing suicidal thoughts, or you’re concerned someone you know is, you can call the Suicide Prevention Hotline (800-273-8255) in the US, or the Samaritans (116-123) in the UK, as well as find further resources for the US here, the UK here, and the rest of the world here.