'The Souvenir Part II' Review: An Extremely Accomplished and Superior Sequel [Cannes]

In 2019 Johanna Hogg unfurled The Souvenir, a film that /Film’s chief film critic described as “stunning” while admitting that its languid pace and convoluted structure required him to “stick with it” and that many walked out during the screening. Stick with it I did, and still found this semi-autobiographical tale of a young film student who falls for a dashing Foreign Office employee, only to find that he hides dark secrets, completely indulgent and ridiculous. Honor Swinton Byrne seemed to walk half-awake through myriad scenes, and despite the appearance of her mom Tilda Swinton and the rest of the committed cast, it ended up being a miserable filmgoing experience.

So color me pleased that not only is Souvenir, Part II an extremely accomplished film, it quite literally erases the need to the first part to exist. A colleague described the initial chapter as akin to the first draft of a screenplay (stories float around that both halves were originally part of a single script), one that had to be written to, ideally, be then shelved. Rather than taking the editorially acute decision to eschew all the needless buildup, Hogg felt the need and had the means to make the lead-up film in its entirety before engaging with the events of Part II.

For audiences that skipped (or never even heard of) the first chapter, they can comfortably pretend like it never existed, as throughout this chapter we hear reflections about what transpired, and even see Hogg’s narrative avatar Julie struggle both personally and artistically with the loss of her former lover. One can quickly surmise the ambivalent charms of the Julie character, someone who is often paralyzed by their decisions, indecisive in their artistic goals, and even mute when those around her fight to try and accommodate her vacillating visions.

Hogg’s level of self-awareness, and her much more daring ability to critique the vagaries of her work (and the faults of the prior chapter) are downright refreshing. I made a poor if slightly facetious comparison with Evil Dead vs Evil Dead II, when the filmmakers realized with the latter that a bit of humor in a retelling obviates many of the stumbles of the earlier work, and there’s plenty more darkly comedic moments that elevate The Souvenir Part II.

Richard Ayoade’s turn as Patrick, a high-concept director of a mega production that talks his way off his own film, is exactly the kind of quirky, engaging, yet decidedly not-overused secondary character that the first film badly needed. Even Julie’s parents (the mother played, of course, again by Swinton) contrasts the pastoral life with dogs running about on foggy fields versus the artificial revelry that takes place on soundstages.

There’s a welcome narrative precision as well, and even when the film veers towards the indulgent with the film-within-a-film, its over-the-top nature is itself a critique of the kind of nonsense that young filmmakers often need to get out of their systems. It’s clear that Julie’s project was not only (appropriately) challenged by her professors, but that the end result is after-the-fact superficially silly. Yet the other level of meta-film, one we see being constructed with flats and set decoration, is far more intriguing, leading us much more gracefully through Hogg’s memories of her youth, and doing so in ways far more inviting than what she had done before.

By dialing back Julie’s centrality to the story, the result is far more effective as we feel the entire landscape orbit around her talents, her grief, her hubris and her growing confidence as an artist by hearing how others navigate the protagonist. If the first film was one where she talked a lot, and we had to watch as she repeatedly made the normal idiotic decisions of youth, this is a far more engaged and mature character who has lived a little, now learning to truly listen. This is a perfect embodiment of the growth of an artist, and how through techniques of filmmaking and narrative concision Hogg is able to tell a far richer character story with all the events of Part I baked in.

Fans of the first will be treated to more of what they love, and even the most jaded detractor of the first chapter will find much to admire. Souvenir Part II is an easy recommendation on every level, a film that stands comfortably alone and allows Hogg’s journey to filmmaking, and Honor Swinton Byrne’s capabilities as a performer, to finally shine in a light that almost every cinema lover will be drawn towards.

/Film Rating: 7 out of 10

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