The Souvenir: Part II

If you have access to the 2019 Joanna Hogg film The Souvenir (for Americans with public library cards it’s completely free on Kanopy, as well as streaming on [throws salt] Prime), and a theater near you is currently showing this year’s follow-up, The Souvenir: Part II, what I have just experienced at the one weirdly arty Regal downtown is genuinely singular in my cinematic life.

It’s rare enough that a semi-fictional art house self-portrait, that was acclaimed but far from popular, would get a theatrically released sequel. It’s rare beyond comprehension that said sequel would continue the story while actively transforming your conception of the original, a “deconstruction of a reconstruction” that creates a meta-filmic two act about like…what it means to carry something with you. About art, how it changes us, and how we change it. And about the embarrassing, acute, hilarious things people say when they try to talk about any of it.

Warmer than the first, funnier than the first, which I already thought was a probably a masterpiece—this one truly is. There’s Themes and Resonance, shots of Tilda Swinton simply smoking in a garden that caused one of my four new Hogg besties to just chuckle appreciably, 150% more ~*incandescent*~ Richard Ayoade scenes, and a needle drop to Erasure. I spent the denouement choked up over I have no idea what, and came out of feeling like I could do 50 backflips. And not just because I had a bag of peanut M&Ms for lunch! JOANNA HOGG ! 

Something I was completely not prepared for at The Souvenir: Part II was, well first of course my little found community of the four other freaks who went out to see the Joanna Hogg movie at 1:15pm on a Sunday on its opening weekend in the city, where we all laughed together at I swear to you, every. single. one. of Richard Ayoade’s lines. I love you all! Masked kisses! I bet I’ve been in the same room with you before at the sold-out 35mm screening of Phantom Thread in January 2020—that’s our vibe!

But also what I was not prepared for, was what it would feel like to see sets and characters on a big theatrical projection that I’d only seen before in my living room. I’d watched The Souvenir (part one) the film “year” it was released but on streaming at home, having missed its brief cinema run. Then I’d rewatched it a few days before seeing Part II, on a much larger TV now but still just on my couch, having some tea. And now seeing Julie’s flat again, and not just the same images repeated like a rep screening, new things happening in this place I knew, it rocked me in a way I hadn’t anticipated at all. Me, in my folding theater seat, heart catching: oh my god that’s her door! Theoretically I’ve experienced something sort of like this before, when TV shows return for new seasons, but this felt completely different. It felt like something that had been on a personal scale was now being presented as cinematic. But not- not like more glossy or expensive, or im-personal—like, the respect of cinema. The love and attention of cinema. I felt so tender and thrilled seeing Honor Swinton Byrne, huge. And all that feels deeply perfect actually for how The Souvenir: Part II negotiates (its own) movie making, and the momentousness a movie can give the lives it depicts. The love and attention of it. “Make him a memorial,” Patrick advises Julie, just tossed in departure as he literally backs away out of this conversation he doesn’t want to have, but nonetheless setting off the whole movie (and movie) to come (oh my god that’s her door!), and I am obsessed with how this comes from him, the joke, the outrageous, the aloofly cutting capital C Character, because ain’t that just the way sometimes in art spaces!

I’m trying to figure out why The Souvenir movies and this year’s other slip-slidey meta-memoir about filmmaking, Mia Hansen-Løve’s Bergman Island, don’t come across as insurmountably self-involved and unrelatable as they by all rights should seem to, given their transparently personal subject matter and the by extension very affluent position of the main characters. Vicky Krieps just off-the-cuff buys, what are they, €500 sunglasses in the Bergman gift shop? And I did describe the first Souvenir as being about “terrible posh people having a bad time,” and I do stand by that. But Bergman Island and The Souvenir both really moved me as well, and Part II even more.

I think it’s that these women have made movies that manage to be self-reflective without being self-indulgent, and they’ve done it by focusing on that: real, proper, disorienting reflections. In Bergman Island, Hansen-Løve has made a movie about a version of herself, who in it is imagining another movie with another version of herself, and that most nested Mia is played by an actor who shares her own first name, and the framing Mia is played by another actor with the same name as her real life daughter. But in the movie, they are called Chris and Amy; this is just part of the texture of the movie as we encounter it in our own world. Meanwhile in the Souvenirs, Hogg has cast Honor Swinton Byrne as a film student in the 1980s with her same initials, and cast the young actor’s real life mother Tilda Swinton to play her on-screen mother as well—the same Tilda Swinton that Joanna herself went to film school with in the 1980s, and who starred in her own real life grad film. The layers and layers! Recursive and reflecting! It gives these movies a mirrored, prism quality, the very shape of them is fascinating to me as a piece of art, and I think these slightly ajar reflections allow a different kind of creator vulnerability to come through as well. Maybe something like the greater emotional disclosure some performers can find when doing mask work.

But maybe what it also is, is that what I just did was mostly list a bunch of other women they were working with. For all that these movies are portraits of their directors, they are profoundly collaborative works. They exist only in this layering of filmmaker and actors, perhaps in a very tangibly realized idea of a shared experience. Something that could be so inward-looking becomes generative, that prism again casting out into all these different hues of what is True. And particularly in Joanna Hogg’s Souvenirs, as her distinct filmmaking style is the first thing a friend of mine told me about her when we were watching Part I, as she has a friend from London who has a small role in these. What Julie is depicted doing in her school program is the nascent stage of Hogg’s working method today, where she writes these very free-flowing scripts of images and ideas and then just feels out the scenes with the actors as they shoot, no dialogue set exactly, creating—finding—the movie together, and capturing all this real hesitancy and spontaneity in the process. 

There’s something incredibly human and touching about hesitancy. Her method brings unique tentativeness to the performances in Joanna Hogg films, but it’s not the kind of hesitancy or tentativeness that comes from being guarded, the opposite, the kind that feels wildly un-guarded. There’s a dangerousness to all of her scenes, a palpable sense that anyone might say either just the right thing or exactly the wrong one. It’s what makes me call Hogg films my tea kettle thrillers.

That’s where The Souvenir: Part II does diverge some though, in that it’s not building to these big ruptures like in the first part, or in something like her Archipelago (I love Archipelago too—an essential pre-fame Tom Hiddleston text). Where Part II differs is that here everything is building to an artistic actualization, aannnd I will say no more about that! I think that’s best saved. (But I loved the choice.)

Oh my god I haven’t even talked about the 1980s of it all. We’re all tired of the ‘80s renaissance but NOT Joanna Hogg’s ‘80s, those are still so fucking fresh. Is it the London of it? Is it the style of her specific milieu, part subtle rich people part scroungey film students all blazers? Is it that there’s no neon, no malls, but a lot of bleached overcast greys like the film itself is lightwashed? It is surely, I think, the music. And the photographs, ahh her old photographs she blew up for backdrops outside the windows still get me feeling some kind of way! When I rewatched The Souvenir knowing this I could see it clearly now, feel a new cozily classic sensation like a Hitchcock soundstage. And it improves it.

The Souvenir: Part II: an actual magic ring of a movie.

★★★★★

Spencer

Oh I seeee! I think I’m picking up Pablo Larraín’s deal now, and I think I really like it. Jackie and now Spencer too sit in this odd space between these very directly stated, here-is-the-message scripts (that somehow were not both written by Steven “Peaky Blinders” Knight, an exemplar of this mode) and Larraín’s tonally unusual, dreamy/nightmarish, memory dilated direction, so that people come out of these movies not wanting to call them biopics, really, but like, fantasias on biopic themes. “A fable based on a true tragedy,” as Spencer opens. Fable is so right! I don’t think his latest ‘too obvious’–if this is, Jackie certainly is as well, which has dialogue just the same–because I think I experience obviousness as a function of genre. Fable tells you just what the lesson is. The mystery and enchantment of fable isn’t in the themes of the story, it’s in why the story lasts, why we keep wanting to tell it over and over.

It’s in that shimmering in-between world of repetition that Jackie and Spencer live. Larraín hires the right designers to make sure the hair and costumes are so perfectly evocative of the looks that made these women icons even before their tragedies sealed them into images, and then sets them loose to waver through an at times literal dream ballet, a subtly and occasionally overtly surreal phantasm of history. He hires actors who will commit with every fiber of their being to embody the voice and manner of this woman, and then places their almost uncanny performance into what feels more like a mood piece than a historical drama. He hires the cinematographers and color graders who can build a hazy archival photo echo of an era in every frame, and composers who will score it like an avant-garde chamber piece, all atmosphere and plinking threads of horror.

Maybe I just get amped about a movie where it has rendered the usual conversation on “what it’s about” basically a non-starter. There’s no need, we’re already told exactly what it’s about. So we get to skip that entirely and talk instead about the big F’s: Filmmaking and Feelings. My favorites!! How much did you lose it during the soup scene when Claire Mathon’s camera pulled back to reveal a string quartet playing Jonny Greenwood’s score diegetic, because I sure lost it a lot! This is what I’m talking about, this is what I love about cinéma, show me art show me choices.

And I loved Kristen Stewart in this too, so much. She’s entrancing, beautiful and sad and difficult and loving, from the lay of her shoulders to the movement of her fingers. I think I liked Spencer more than Jackie largely because it’s her. Kristen Stewart playing Princess Diana, wincing in front of paparazzi, is also something this movie is about. An aspect that this time no characters says aloud, but is there in every scene, because she is. Truly come to think of it, she might be in every scene once she first appears…a lead performance in the most classic sense.

Spencer is less camp than Jackie but that’s alright, I’ll have House of Gucci later. Or maybe it is still camp but I’m further from the British royal family than the American so didn’t pick it up as much. I know I was crying at one point because it was pop, because I found it very sad the way pop songs sometimes make me feel, hopeful and hopeless all at one bright once. 

★★★★