The real mastery of The Souvenir: Part II is in how it does so much while appearing to do so little. It is that rare and precious film that is at once so effortlessly real yet also so deeply artistic and intentional. It is every inch an art-house work, a more experimental follow-up to the critically acclaimed original. Yet, it is also a window into the past, and a view directly into humanity; a work that captures the small moments, the incidental interactions that make up the majority of life yet rarely find their way into cinema. In this regard, it sits alongside the work of Abbas Kiarostami, to an extent feeling like a sequel to the first part in the same way sequels work in his stunning Koker Trilogy (1987-1994). Like those masterworks, and this too is a masterwork, we dive deeply into reality and humanity (revealing rare insights) while simultaneously zooming in on the function of cinema, all while zooming out, or by stepping away from the camera, in a meta-way. Films so deeply aware of their function as films, of what it means to film something and of why we film something. Films that interrogate this, but that do so in a way that feels like a by-product of a true interest in exploring humanity.
Though independent and contained enough to work as its own feature, The Souvenir: Part II works best (unsurprisingly) as a coda to the former film. It is a fascinating move, a direct sequel to an art-house British film that seemed like a standalone work (the kind of move that invites jokes about what other niche classics could be sequelised (God’s Own Country: Part II when?)). However, almost instantly, it is clear it was the right move, in that Part II, magically, serves as the second half of something that felt previously complete. It also is an incredibly smart expansion on what made the original so special, alongside being a push into an interesting new direction. The original film was a semi-autobiographical look at the life of a young, female film student in the early ’80s, Julie (a fictionalised version of director Joanna Hogg, played by Honor Swinton Byrne) that also chronicled her romantic relationship with a manipulative and untrustworthy man (to put things simply). Part II follows on directly from the key event that ended the first film, dealing almost entirely with its aftermath. However, it uses this as a prism through which to reflect all things. It is in one way only about the impact of this moment, and how it trickles through Julie’s life, but it is also about everything else (about wider life and moving on).
The immediate cleverness of Part II, though, derives from its premise. We are still at film school but now Julie is making her graduation film; her chosen subject is to tell the story of her former relationship through film. Thus, the fictionalised Joanna Hogg is creating, in a Joanna Hogg movie, a version of Joanna Hogg’s previous film, which this actual film (The Souvenir: Part II) is already a sequel of. It is the kind of thing that sounds complicated in description but flows so easily on the screen. This, of course, allows the first film to standalone while now allowing Hogg to revisit and reflect on it. If the first film was a kind of exploratory catharsis, this work is an interrogation of that as well as an expansion. The making of The Souvenir inherently evokes Hogg’s desire to use cinema to address her past, and to address the past in general. The making of The Souvenir: Part II makes that desire text; it makes the audience part of the conversation. Which, quite simply, is just wonderful. Seeing Julie sift through the past to construct something in the present allows the audience to more deeply connect with the previous film, as well as with our main character, and to forge a deeper bond with this work.
The added familiarity of the world, in which we can rely on established relationships with characters, opens so much up for the film. This is such a thoughtful work, one that inspires persistent reflection, and its status as an epilogue only encourages, and facilitates, this. Yes, it is ostensibly based in the past and reality, but it also has its own filmic world with excellent characters, one which we now have a familiarity with. Though it deals with trauma and discomfort, this is a welcoming and comfortable film, one that allows itself to go at its own rhythm (supported excellently by our prior experiences). In this way, it follows some of the intentional steps of the original, but in a different way. One area in which this is immediately apparent is through the filmic language. Both films share a similar structure regarding how the images are brought together. Though this sequel has a far less conventional narrative arc than the first (which was aided by the natural narrative arc a relationship gives), they are sequenced similarly: the feeling is of distinct moments brought together, giving the feeling of sifting through memories. The Souvenir felt like a souvenir, an object from the past that spills out memories in an evocative fashion (an approach that made perfect sense as it was a director searching through their past to glean a narrative).
Part II, similarly, feels like snapshots, but not vignettes: a propulsive but syncopated structure that doesn’t flow like conventional films do. Again, we are sifting through the past, but this time the metre of the film is in concert with the metre of Julie’s mind. The fragmented sequences mirror her approach to make sense of things, to piece something together that doesn’t cohere, matching her struggle to wrestle her past into a film. Presenting this through the actual film, and successfully so, is just genius. It is also just really interesting. Often, a musical cue will hit, a precise needle drop that evokes such a familiar cinematic sensation. This is a thing that films do, a way they make us feel, and the film harnesses it. But it does so knowingly, this being a film about how films are constructed, and it also subverts it. We are never quite allowed to be swept away, as these moments end abruptly or surprise us with their appearances. It is one of many techniques used that cleverly play with cinematic form to reflect the internal state of the character while also functioning as meta-commentary. The visual approach is also fascinating. It is a dextrous film, one that plays with aspect ratios and that is shot with clear intentionality. Yet, at no point does it feel forced or like it is showing off. In fact, at every point, the style of the film is so perfectly positioned with our character, conveying her view of the world or how the world is viewing her. The first film so often placed her in the back of the frame, or obscured, mirroring her role in the filmic establishment. At times, this does the same, matching her varying sense of self-security and her treatment by others. Yet, it also frequently places her in the centre, often in interestingly uncomfortable ways. Frequently, she is centre frame but staring slightly off, or viewed in profile. It so brilliantly captures the idea of being in the limelight, of being the focus, while also communicating how this is forced and uncomfortable. It is hard to visually capture an awkwardness without the film itself feeling this, The Souvenir: Part II does this perfectly. Another visual highlight is in a motif of our central character moving through film sets, often film sets that replicate places from her life. It leads to such striking moments but also so cleverly fronts the way the film is playing with reality and fiction, and what it means when we fictionalise reality with our cameras.
All of this is true of The Souvenir: Part II but it is also somewhat misrepresentative. This is a deeply intelligent and emotional work but it’s also really funny. In capturing the everyday so well, it finds the humour that exists in every day. This comes from the film’s innate naturalism, where actors are given room to improvise around key beats and are all so well directed, and all very good improvisers. The two comedic highlights are Richard Ayoade’s Patrick (a returning character given more screen time) and James Spencer Ashworth’s turn as William, Julie’s father. The latter is funny due to how perfectly it encapsulates known dynamics, with perfectly pitched turns of phrase. The former is quotable genius in which Ayoade plays both a caricature of a pretentious filmmaker and a deeply believable, if performative, figure. These actors, and others, just imbue the film with such humanity and personality. And, at the centre of it all, is Honor Swinton Byrne, who could not be better. It is such a difficult role in which so much is asked of her, yet she is pitch perfect. It is a triumph of direction but also such a well realised performance. She is able to be so enigmatic, so conflicted, so clear, so passionate, so assured and so overwhelmed. She houses conflicting emotions and states with ease and thusly presents such a human character. She is aided by Tilda Swinton, her actual mum who is playing her mum, who brings a traditionally brilliant Tilda Swinton performance to the film.
And what a film it is. This just feels special. It is full of spellbinding touches and is just astonishing filmmaking. In the moment, it just works, feeling accessible and real though inviting deep and critical engagement. It is in the aftermath, though, where the film works its magic. Appropriate, really, for a film about how movies can deal with aftermath. It is a film that will grow in your mind, flourishing into the masterpiece it is. It is assured and classically brilliant while also slyly subversive, playful (cheeky even). It also has one of the best endings, a clever moment with spellbinding implications. The Souvenir: Part II is a gift for cinephiles, the past as a present. It already feels at home in the canon of great sequels and of great British cinema.