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 surely 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 two rows behind me, 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 my little found community of the handful of other weirdos 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. Now seeing Julie’s flat again, and not just the same images repeated like a rep screening, but 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 as in 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, 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 love 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 one of this year’s other slip-slidey meta-memoirs 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 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 element: 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 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.)
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 all? Is it the style of her specific milieu, part 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.