The Souvenir Part II Captures the Ragged Beauty of the 1980s Like No Other Film
Every event is one thing and a thousand things—one thing as you’re living it, and a thousand things as, in the years afterward, you remember it. If Joanna Hogg’s 2019 film The SouvenirIt is the truth. The Souvenir Part IIspeaks about the thousand other things to come, the kaleidoscope of bits that we call memory. The In The Souvenir, naïve aspiring filmmaker Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne), living in London but hailing from a genteel family in the countryside, falls in love with Anthony (Tom Burke), an older, rakish charmer who claims to work for the Foreign Office, and he possibly may. However, his true job is as a secret addict, deceiving Julie, and even stealing, leaving her devastated when he overdoses. The Souvenir Part II shows us what Julie does, and who she becomes, after that loss—it’s about the thousand things that will shape her, and keep shaping her, even beyond the movie’s last frame. Memory isn’t a thing we hang onto; it’s the thing we become.
The Souvenir Part IIIt is both a continuation and a start. Both films are set in the 1980s and are, as Hogg has said in interviews, semi-autobiographical, inspired by a relationship she had as a young woman. But The Souvenir Part II,The earlier picture is both universally more relatable and intimate. Although beautifully acted and made, The SouvenirA centuries-old miniature portrait had the sad and cold look of a tiny, unfinished painting. This was something you could touch but not fully comprehend. The Souvenir Part IIThe film is now in a larger, more detailed frame. It’s rushed in with swirls and color, as well as perspective. It’s also a film about youthful eagerness, about the desire to Please beSomeone who makes something. And that, it seems, isn’t something that changes with the shift of generations.
We get a sense of Julie’s ambitions early on in the film, though they’re so entwined with her grief that the two fuse, like the dual heads of Janus. Immediately following Anthony’s death, she has retreated to her parents’ home, a tasteful mini-manor of mossy patterned wallpaper, cushiony sheet-draped couches, and tail-wagging spaniels. Her mother (once again played, wonderfully, by Tilda Swinton, Byrne’s mother in real life) tries to soothe her through her mourning, a fluttering, protective warmth lurking beneath her aristocratic coolness. Her father (James Spencer Ashworth, also terrific) is a practical and somewhat distracted country dad who’s trying, not always successfully, to understand what his daughter is up to. They try to keep Julie safe, but Julie really wants to go back to school and start her new life. In London, she visits the set of a director friend, Patrick (a marvelously flamboyant Richard Ayoade, also returning from the first film), who’s so preoccupied with his own flailing project that he waves her grief away. He was Anthony’s friend, too, and he has no answers for Julie, but he does toss her a prompt: “Make a memorial for him.”
You can find the rest at The Souvenir Part II shows how Julie’s tentative, unformed ideas become her graduate film, a movie version of the story told in The Souvenir, this time peopled not with herself and her dead beloved, but with actors—she’s hoping, it seems, not to capture the truth but to finally see it, like a revelation cast upon the wall by shadow puppets. While directing her actors, she revisits Anthony’s relationship and tries to understand it. She once tried to explain this inexplicable situation to Garance, a fellow student. Garance is curious about Garance’s motivation. Why does her character behave the way she does? This It is not possible to do so. ThatIs there a way to do that? Julie tries to explain, faltering, until the answer comes staggering out in a whisper: “Because that’s not how it happened.”
Although we never get to see Julie’s film-within-afilm, it is possible to view a reel with memories in dream imagery, similar as Jean Cocteau. But the true film, the unseen, allows Julie to return to the world stronger after her loss. Even though her director of photography pushes against her organization, she learns to be more authoritative with her crew. Her sweet, caring editor Joe Alwyn flirts tentatively with her and asks her to come back to her place. He then tells her to get home in order to prepare dinner for her boyfriend. (“He hasn’t been very well for a while now,” he says, a murmur of an explanation that reflects the mood of the early days of the AIDS crisis, a terrifying reality that hit everyone in the arts, directly or otherwise.) Earlier, she’d indulged in a one-night stand with a scampish actor (Charlie Heaton)—the assignation occasions one of the greatest post-sex sight gags ever put to film.
The Souvenir Part IIIt is lighter and more entertaining than its predecessor. Hogg had originally intended to make both movies at the same time, and though that plan didn’t work out, it hardly matters. It is possible to make both movies simultaneously. The SouvenirThis is an exaggerated gasp The Souvenir Part II is a sigh—they’re both part of the same breath. As Julie, Byrne seems to glide from that film to this: she’s an extraordinary, affectless performer, her face instinctively turning to the light like a sunflower. There’s a moment in The Souvenir Part II that refracts a flash of the intense pain Julie felt during her affair with Anthony—here, Byrne’s face, raw with confusion, is almost unbearable to look at. But by the movie’s final moments, a coda showing what is presumably Julie’s thirtieth birthday party, all of that suffering has been absorbed and subsumed into radiance. Julie’s casual openness to the world is right there to see, on Byrne’s face.
Read more reviews by Stephanie Zacharek
Hogg and Byrne made a movie that is abenevolent about self-absorption in young people. Perhaps jolting yourself out of this self-indulgence can help us stumble towards generosity. I wonder what will happen? The Souvenir Part II look like to people who are now in their twenties, roughly the age Julie is in the film—as opposed to those, like me, who are Hogg’s contemporaries? It seems that most young people only think of 1980s as a period of bad looks, large shoulder pads, and John Hughes movies. But Hogg—along with her costume designer, Grace Snell—captures something about the era I haven’t seen in any other film, the ragged beauty of just getting by while trying to make something happen, in a world where the Internet had not yet intruded with its pretense of connecting us. Her portrayal captures the feeling of youth at the time. They are trying new things and just trying to figure out how they live. Julie comes from money, so her clothes are more elegant than the stuff most of us made do with, but they vibrate with the same spirit: men’s jackets from the thrift-store racks, sleeves rolled up to expose the lining; pointed leather flats that you wore to death; big shirts under high-button vests. You had to be as cool as you could be on what you could afford, which usually wasn’t much.
I thought about this as I left the film and walked to the subway, still lost in the movie’s spell but fully composed—until I wasn’t. I burst into tears over the way things were in the ‘80s and are no longer, but also for the way Hogg had captured the rocky exuberance of just being that age, and the intensity of the things we wanted. How was it to experience such uncertainty mixed with anticipation, and all the while feeling absolutely miserable? The Souvenir Part IIIt all went back. There are a thousand. A single movie.