Tuesday 1 February 2022

It's my life: "The Souvenir: Part II"

In her early features, the writer-director Joanna Hogg did a lot of hiding behind her characters. She was somewhere on the screen, so well observed were the worlds being described, but it wasn't always clear where, which could be exasperating, like a
Where's Wally? book with the answer pages torn out. 2019's The Souvenir, on the other hand, was something else entirely. A film-memoir centred on a doomed formative relationship, it was infused with rich, bitter, teachable first-person experience, a movie with the vividness of biting the inside of your cheek by accident; it was a piece of her, plain and simple. In a flourish of creative boldness, the British film industry immediately commissioned a second instalment, and now we have The Souvenir: Part II, which picks up where the first part left off, with Honor Swinton Byrne's pallid film student Julie Harte (the initials may look familiar) recovering from the shock of what's gone before and pushing on with a graduation film bearing the meta-tastic title of "The Souvenir". Continuity is ensured by the presence of recurring characters - posh mum Tilda Swinton, Richard Ayoade as a touchy director scattering clues as to his real-world equivalent - and Hogg's quietly observational style. Other elements soon mesh: Julie herself is so quietly observational, so recessive by nature - a walking fount of very British apologies - that she possibly needed a Hogg to watch over her and draw her out. (Thirty years on, the director can punch up everything her onscreen surrogate lacked the confidence or vocabulary to express at the time.) Yet this is also a rare sequel to have thematic reason to exist: it's about how we move forwards, make better sense of senseless things, and in the case of our heroine, make the art that helps make better sense of senseless things. This is Hogg showing her own working - how she got to the point where she got to roll camera and call cut on The Souvenir: Part II. This time, she's not hiding. This time, it really is personal.

One funny aspect of the new film is that there is a lot more space on screen, if Hogg had been inclined to hide. As per sequel tradition, Part II is bigger than The Souvenir; although Julie has (understandably) retreated into herself as the film begins, the worlds this camera passes into seem to expand with promise and possibility, as the world generally does through your twenties. Part 1 was all tearooms, flophouses and poky flats, but much of Part II plays out on studio sets that cinematographer David Raedeker approaches as mini-mazes or ever-shifting halls of mirrors. This is where we find Hogg reflecting on the British film industry as it was in the early 1980s, and fun has been had contrasting the glamour being set in front of the camera with the humdrum reality behind it: a half-dozen starving worker bees, bellies and mouths grumbling, waiting round on catering buses and listening to the rain spatter against the roof. You're reminded this was a moment when some small part of this industry - represented on screen by the Ayoade character - was straining to match the sheeny escapism of the French cinéma du look, and hoping the audience would forget it had all been shot on the outskirts of Leavesden. Somewhere in the distance of these scenes - in the back offices and film schools - Hogg drops in mementos of the battles being fought within the industry at this time, partly stylistic (expressionism versus the prevailing social realism, Jarman vs. Loach, nobody stopping to think a properly secure industry can support both), but also partly generational. I suspect a lot of heads will start nodding in recognition a few minutes into the scene that finds a room full of middle-aged white men tutting at the script young Julie has submitted for approval; Hogg gets the condescension in the air just right. (That stuff sticks with you.)

What's clear from this diptych is the extent to which this filmmaker had previously internalised that criticism. Despite their chichi settings, Hogg's breakthrough works were austerity cinema, of a piece with the kind of project the BFI and Film4 were backing back in the 1980s; their few stabs at comedy were nervy and awkward. The Souvenir films suggest Hogg has finally made her peace with the idea of film as entertainment. That's why she goads Swinton and Ayoade into digging into their eccentric characterisations; as in Part 1, she runs wild with a proper soundtrack budget, cueing up musical madeleines from the likes of Erasure, Talk Talk and Propaganda. These are the songs the young Joanna may well have heard for the first time sitting on that bus in Leavesden, but they're also a source of pleasure, reminders that even on the greyest, most depressive Mondays in Thatcher's Britain, there were still artists doing their level best to repaint the world the colour of spring. In some alternate timeline, there'd be a version of The Souvenir that's as dry as a careers talk, or as loftily theoretical as Sex is Comedy, Catherine Breillat's aside on the making of À ma soeur!; there would also be several versions that collapse into outright narcissism. Miraculously, the version we've ended up with never does, in large part because it feels multidirectional: there's something of interest going on almost everywhere you look, and many more notable developments beyond those Julie herself undergoes. Everyone feels right for their role, from the huffy bloke Julie enlists as cinematographer (to apparently ongoing regret) to the veteran therapist keeping our gal on the straight and narrow. (The pop star we see Julie directing at a late juncture is so perfect she's played by an actual pop star, Anna Calvi.) Likewise, Julie's graduation film, unveiled in the closing moments, hews so closely to the aesthetic of late-Eighties student movies it can only spark post-film discussions as to how good or bad Hogg intends it to be.

It is, at the very least, another reminder that this project is above all else a personal one, as heartfelt as the ever-earnest Julie's efforts to understand the events of Part 1. Part II sets her to piecing things together - a mystery, a film, a career, a broken Harte [sic] - which may just be the default setting for anybody still working in the arts in this country. Swinton Byrne was overshadowed by Tom Burke first time out, but she's perfect here as the kind of girl often spotted at the industry's fringes: undeniably privileged ("it's only a term's fees," shrugs her dad after she breaks one of the family's cherished Etruscan pots; fragility is everywhere) yet sensitive with it, and uncertain about expressing herself. She has a terrific scene in which Julie is obliged to turn down an actress friend hoping for a casting call; she's even more alert amid the intimacy of an edit-suite scene with an older chap to which Julie has taken misguided shine. This latter subplot's punchline is where you most clearly see the fondness with which Hogg looks upon her clueless younger self. Yet there's real pride here, too, because directing evidently forced some responsibility on this girl - to communicate with others in a way the naif of The Souvenir would have found impossible. (And to do so without lapsing into the withering abuse of Ayoade's tyro, a fun character to watch, presumably far less so to work with - an enfant terrible, if ever there was.) What Hogg has filmed in these two films is growth: that crucial evolutionary progression from not knowing what you want to knowing what you don't want, and thence being able to express what it is you do want, a small life-switch on which to hang an entire franchise, but a staggeringly significant one in the vast cosmic order of things. Early on in The Souvenir: Part II, Julie stammers out a sense of the sort of film she doesn't want to end up making: "something that people forget as soon as the credits roll". I can reassure both her and her creator that this version of The Souvenir is absolutely not that film.

The Souvenir: Part II opens in selected cinemas from Friday; The Souvenir is currently available to stream via the BBC iPlayer.

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