Grief is a complex emotion and one that requires time and energy to process properly. Yet, for many, there needs to be an outlet, some creative space or activity that allows one to examine their feelings in a removed but still direct manner. This is the premise of The Souvenir Part II. In a landscape of blockbuster franchises and a dwindling market for low and mid-budget dramas, this film already feels like a minor miracle: the sequel to a 2019 semi-autobiographical character study of a young woman in love with a toxic partner, Part II picks up immediately where The Souvenir left off and takes a deeper and more thoughtful dive into writer-director Joanna Hogg’s past.
Honor Swinton Byrne stars once again as Julie, a young woman in film school. Her studies were interrupted in the first film by her relationship with Anthony (Tom Burke); following his death, she is now back in school and working on a film. That film happens to be about a young woman in a relationship with a toxic older man.
This film-production-within-a-film format allows Julie –and by extension Hogg herself– to examine parts of her life in greater detail and process her emotions surrounding Anthony’s death. It often has her standing her ground on creative choices, not just in the face of pushback from her collaborators but from the school itself. This event reflects Hogg’s real-life experience, in which her film school thesis project (which also starred Tilda Swinton) was rejected, but she went on to make it anyway.
What elevates Part II over its predecessor –which, to be clear, I liked but didn’t love– is this process of self-reflection and the path that Julie takes in coming to terms with the fact that her dead boyfriend wasn’t just a casual drug user but an outright junkie, something that she seemed to be the only one who didn’t know. It doesn’t present this path as easy, clean-cut, or even necessarily linear; the film instead paints an incredibly human portrait of a young woman working through an extremely complicated series of feelings.
Tilda Swinton returns as Julie’s mother, and the real bond between them as mother and daughter helps inform their on-screen relationship. This time out, it is more tender and supportive, and even in scenes where they have difficult conversations, there is a real feeling of love and support present. Also returning is Richard Ayoade as the diva classmate who needs everything just so. His scenes are delightfully over the top, and he provides a great contrast to the kind of artist that Julie is. Finally, Joe Alwyn makes an all too brief appearance as a fellow student and film editor, the one who shows up to lend a kind ear and remind Julie that her project is, in fact, her project.
When we finally get to see the finished film-withing-a-film, it is a wonderful and abstract piece, an ethereal investigation of the previous film’s events, and one that is both challenging and touching. She achieves this by realising how exactly she wants to remember things not as they were but how she imagines they were, a philosophy that the not quite linear narrative and dreamlike final few scenes make clear is Hogg’s philosophy as well.
One of the most singular and interesting films of the year, its slow pace and understated performances may not be for everyone, but The Souvenir Part II is a substantial work of art that everyone should see for themselves.
The Souvenir Part II will be in limited theatrical release in Toronto on Friday, December 3rd and Vancouver on Friday, December 10th.
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