October 29, 2021
EXORCISMS ARE NOT EASY. A haunting is a spider’s web, a palm across the throat, embers threatening to light again. All of these are better comfort than the world as it is, wracked with absences which go increasingly unremarked upon. There are many ways to finish the phrase “grief is,” but the issue for the bereaved is that grief consumes. The dead remain dead and in their wake there is this thing which devours, doubles back, and devours again even when there is little left to scavenge. This is a dreary state of affairs. The art of grief, when it’s bad, can give into wallowing. Over the course of The Souvenir (2019) and The Souvenir Part II, Joanna Hogg has refused this indulgence in large part by keying in on its absurdities. A young woman falls for an older man and is pulled into a passionate and tragic adventure. In the midst of it all a teacup rattles on a windowsill, because an IRA cell has bombed Harrod’s. It is only for lovers that time stops; the world rattles on.
Hogg’s films have long drawn from her life, but The Souvenir plunged further into autobiography than her previous work by restaging the director’s own love affair with a mysterious man during her time as a film student in Thatcher-era London. Like all memoirs it was semifictionalized, but the actual process of the filmmaking made clear that Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne) was a stand-in for Hogg. The apartment was a recreation of Hogg’s own (from memory, as the current inhabitants didn’t want to participate) down to the use of some of the same furniture. The handling of the relationship is notable for the respect it affords both lovers. The movie, concerned as it is with a May-December romance as well as heroin addiction, could have become dense with plot and queasy pathos. But the shifting power imbalances are treated as experiences to be lived, felt, and negotiated rather than dead facts to be coldly examined. Julie loses herself, but recovers. Anthony (Tom Burke) does not. A small tragedy plays out. One is not provided neat instructions for how to feel, beyond the invitation to recognize that sliding sensation at once pleasurable and terrifying as one falls for someone else.
The Souvenir Part II is the rare sequel worth the time. Sequels, now, tend to reek of commercial exploitation. Their existence tells you that someone, in the process of making art, has produced intellectual property. Hogg has done something different. The movie picks up in the aftermath of Anthony’s death as Julie tries to come to terms with her loss. She seems somewhat incapable of simply collapsing and instead sets about trying to produce a film that recreates the events of her relationship. This is the trouble with artists: they don’t move on. The film within the film—not to be confused with The Souvenir, which is in effect doing the same thing—becomes an obsession. Films about filmmaking are always dangerous. Cinema’s ability to manufacture glamor is unsurpassed and it is easy to mistake that for import. But Hogg avoids the temptation to make the actual process into a glorious struggle. Mostly she makes fun of it. What is most surprising about The Souvenir Part II is how a film about a young woman grieving the loss of her ex while trying to graduate from film school can wind up so funny. Julie trying to explain to a whole crew that they have lit for a daytime scene, per her instructions, but really ought to relight for a nighttime scene could easily have been played as a moment of artistic fortitude. It is that—Julie does insist on what she wants—but the scene lets in the frustration of the cinematographer and lets it run so long one begins to feel the utter exasperation such a request would trigger.
Over the course of her career, and especially with the two Souvenirs, Hogg has created something that is not quite naturalism. Her methods produce a peculiar kind of performance which chafes, productively, against the rest of her form. The images are precise, but also mannered; the dialogue is cleaner than real life, but the diction is as relaxed. When people speak strangely and portentously, as Richard Ayoade’s Patrick is wont to do when discussing the nature of cinema or life, they stand apart from the others. The performances are a product of her rehearsal process, wherein she works with the actors over a period of time to build out the script rather than getting the actors to meet the text. Hogg knows where she is going, but the how is a collaborative question. Widely held to be an observational kind of realism, her style appears more like a heightened and expertly choreographed rendition of reality. The Souvenir Part II makes clearest that Hogg is not faithful to “real life,” but to art and emotion. When Julie finally shows the film she has been making, the style outrageously defies what has come before in the movie and Hogg’s career. What you see is not what you get. What you see is only the setup. What you get will take more time.
If Hogg is observational, it is a kind of watching that makes the vision blur. Few could withstand the meticulous scrutiny. Her characters are often trapped in some kind of stasis, even if they cannot recognize it or its causes. In the late ’60s it might have been ennui, but even that has lost its luster. Remarkably, in an age of hyper-self-conscious characters, her well off Westerners—exactly the sort to have learned the language necessary to explain and excuse themselves—are stumbling, trying to make sense of it all, but more prone to acting than naming. Julie breaks a sugar bowl, sleeps with a man who bears passing resemblance to Anthony, and goes for an afternoon tea. The film is crafted such that each of these scenes feel momentous, even if ceramic shards, a one-night stand, and Earl Grey are trifles compared to love, addiction, or the Troubles. She may be out of control, but she still acts. It doesn’t add up. Our choices rarely do.
The strict attention Hogg’s movies pay to her characters’ violent need to dramatize allows her to create a tension in her films whereby each moment, prop, or gesture bears the possibility of rupture. A certain kind of cigarette or a pinstripe jacket worn in the right dining room feel like bombs going off if you know they are relics from a lost love. In Hogg’s films, objects don’t represent; they radiate. The effects of the dead linger. The artist picks them up, rearranges them, and puts them down again. When we’re lucky, it might look something like this.
— Blair McClendon
The Souvenir Part II opens in US theaters on October 29.