It’s all in the title. The Souvenir.
In Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s painting, a young woman named Julie carves the initials of her lover into the body of a tree while her faithful spaniel sides beside her. She is dressed in pink, her cheeks rosy. She is undeniably feminine. Her chin is downturned, her eyes fixed precisely on her work. She is not just any Julie: she is philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Julie, the protagonist of his novel, Julie; or, The New Heloise. The letter that she carves is not an S, though it looks like one at first, but an F: Fragonard. The painter has taken his subject, and given her the ability to sign his own name. She is him, after all.
In Joanna Hogg’s 2018 film, The Souvenir, a young woman named Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne) is taken to a gallery by her boyfriend, Anthony (Tom Burke). There, he shows her Fragonard’s The Souvenir.
“Do you like her?” Anthony asks.
Julie leans in close. “She looks sad.”
“I think she looks determined,” he says, and after a pause, “and very much in love.”
This is all in the past, though. Rousseau, Fragonard—Anthony now, as well. A portrait hall of men lost.
As Fragonard gives his Julie an F to carve into a tree, so too must we look at Hogg’s Julie as an avatar of the self. Hogg has not been shy in explaining that The Souvenir, and its 2021 sequel, The Souvenir Part II are semi-autobiographical works. Hogg had a relationship with a slightly older man while she was in film school, and he died from an overdose.
The mere existence of The Souvenir Part II felt like a bit of a joke upon the release of the first. As the credits of The Souvenir come to their natural conclusion, a title card reads: The Souvenir Part II Coming Soon in a gummy pink font. It feels funny, a bit of a wink. This is not a cinematic universe. This is the world as we know it, more or less. What else is there to say about Julie? And Anthony? They lived, they loved, they dated, he died. The Souvenir is novelistic, impressionist. We are not told much; we are shown everything. It is a paperweight of a film: dense and bulbous and kaleidoscopic. For every person I know who loved it, I know someone who was put off. I, myself, emerged from the theater in 2019 shell-shocked.
The events of one’s life do not form a story. Humans are not narrative; we are chaos. Things happen to us; we make things happen. It is up to us, in our stupid little brains, to connote meaning and memory.
But Julie is a filmmaker, as is Hogg, and the answer to the question of what to do with something like The Souvenir is to make a movie: The Souvenir. And, just as Hogg made The Souvenir, Julie, too, now makes The Souvenir.
If this is dizzying or confusing, we can slow down the pace, I’ll walk you through it, it’ll all be fine. A few years ago, Joanna Hogg made a movie called The Souvenir about something that happened to her in her twenties. In The Souvenir Part II, Hogg’s protagonist, Julie, makes a movie called The Souvenir about something that happened to her a few months prior. Time deviates from itself. Rather than put the material of The Souvenir in an older self’s hands, Hogg experiments with the following thought: What if The Souvenir had been her first film?
It is basically delusional to pursue a career in the arts. I’m sorry if this is how you’re finding out, but it’s true. For a character like Julie, it ought to be easy.
In The Souvenir, Julie’s thesis film is a muddle, as close as the movie has to a running joke. It’s a glimpse into working class England, a contrived story about a mother and son perhaps functioning as a metaphor for the country in the 1980s. Julie is not from a working class background, however: she is moneyed, and moneyed beyond belief. She lives, rent-free, in an apartment owned by her parents, who themselves live in a spacious country house. On the occasional weekend, Julie dips out of the city to visit them for long walks with their family spaniels.
Throughout the first film, Anthony asks Julie for money—for drugs—and she acquiesces, going to her mother (Tilda Swinton, Byrne Swinton’s mother in real life, too) for check after check. Her mother purses her lips, but always hands over whatever her daughter wants. It’s for the film, Julie promises, though we don’t see a drop of that money go towards her thesis.
The Souvenir Part II picks up not long after The Souvenir dropped off: Julie back at her parents’ country estate for rest and recovery. Their home is decadent without being garish, feigning rural simplicity all while eating boiled potatoes off of expensive china. In the vast expanses of wild flowers outside their property, Julie takes her father’s (James Spencer Ashworth—a delight, a non-actor, and a literal farmer) hand. Earlier, he tiptoes around the subject of Anthony: “Did you know what was wrong with the poor chap?” Her parents are eager to baby her, bringing breakfast in bed with a small glass vase of flowers, but Julie knows what she has to do.
What has changed between The Souvenir and The Souvenir Part II? Anthony is dead, yes, and now Julie’s thesis must change.
Once, when looking at Julie’s script in The Souvenir, Anthony purred, “We can all be sincere, but what’s it all for?” Indeed: Anthony was anything but sincere. He claimed to work for the foreign office, but there’s no evidence of such. He’d go missing for days on end. Julie knows in her heart that this was an aspect of his addiction, but she cannot bring herself to tell his parents, with whom she visits. “I’m just hoping that I can find a reference to a friend of his…that there is some involvement in the foreign office,” Anthony’s father says. Julie stares at him, eyes wide. She is on the same journey, poring over the primary sources of her life to try to find answers not made apparent. On her way out, his parents give her a drawing of him as a child—the way they saw him now pressed into Julie’s hands. In the pencil drawing, he is round-faced and steely. A determined child.
“This deception had become his life,” Julie’s therapist tells her.
Julie does all the right things: she gets a therapist, she tries to date, she resumes her studies in school. None of that helps in a meaningful sense. She is miserable, woebegone, exhausted. The thing that makes her feel anything—not necessarily better, but something—is returning to set.
She goes to visit Anthony’s friend Patrick (Richard Ayoade, stealing the show), who is shooting his film on the lot near her school. Patrick’s film—what we see of it—is an old Hollywood throwback. Rough and tumble boys with dirt smeared on their faces and ill-fitting suspenders swarm around a bottle redhead to loud rock music. It’s West Side Story, it’s Newsies. Patrick is asked, outside the lot, why he is shooting a musical: “Look at us. We’re in the pissing rain. Wouldn’t you want to be on a soundstage in widescreen, rather than here, like every other fucking English film ever made where it’s drizzling? That’s why. To use the form, to use movement, music, montage, rather than…blegh…that’s why.”
(“Would you say it’s a political musical?” Before Julie can finish asking, Patrick snaps: “Everything’s political. Everything’s political.”)
His leading man, Jim (a steely, dirty-looking Charlie Heaton), eyes Julie. Julie eyes him back. Amidst the fantasy of Patrick’s film—the glowing horizon, the smoke machines, the music, the painted castle backdrop—she can indulge in the fantasy of unreality. The star sees her across a crowded room. Fluorescent lights frame her face. She is dreamy, dreaming.
But they can’t live in that world forever. Out in the rain, Julie tries to corner Patrick to ask about Anthony, to bring him back down to reality. “Bad time,” he says.
Julie’s Souvenir comes together. With painstaking accuracy, she rebuilds her apartment inside the lot by her school. Of course, Hogg herself did the very same thing for these movies, filling the set with elements from her own life. One of the most poignant details from Hogg’s Souvenir were Julie’s stuffed animals, tucked into the covers at the top of the bed—toys that belonged in real life to Honor Swinton Byrne. This is where the magic begins, where the differences between Julie’s Souvenir and Hogg’s Souvenir, between Honor Swinton Byrne and Joanna Hogg, start to blur. According to the young star, she’d often show up on set without a call sheet, without a script, everyone else in the film versed in what happens in a scene, and she would have to improvise her way through it, muddling through 20 minutes of honest actions and reactions while those around her were content to stay with a story she didn’t know the ending to. In turn, her performance as Julie feels surprising and open, unmannered and unpolished.
Juliie casts her film school friend, Garance (Ariane Labed), as herself. Garance couldn’t be more opposite from Julie if she tried. Strong-willed, opinionated, aggressively type-A. On set, she takes no prisoners and works quickly, chain-smoking cigarettes, vision clear in her head. For the casting of Anthony, it’s a more difficult journey. “He’s too handsome, he’s too nice, they’re too glamorous,” Julie says, going over the headshots. There was an ugliness to Anthony. A seductive boorishness, but a boorishness nonetheless. At Garance’s suggestion, Julie sits down with Pete (Harris Dickinson), who is much more sensitive and soft-spoken than Anthony. He almost sympathizes with Anthony too much, bringing about a side of him that Julie never considered. “It seems like he was crying for help,” Pete notes of Anthony. Did Julie hear the call at the time? Or does she only hear it now, in the film?
Julie returns to their old haunts. She wears Anthony’s clothing. She reviews footage she took during their time together, much of which is Hogg’s footage from that era. Julie writes and writes and writes. She immerses herself in her own world, desperate to emerge in the third person instead of the first.
The project hiccups. It stumbles. Her film professors are skeptical. They preferred her earlier idea for her thesis, the Sunderland film, about the mother and son. “What has changed?” one asks. “Where has that other world gone?” Another takes issue with the fact that Julie has bound their scripts together with a red bow, an act of either sentimentality or utmost caring (or both).
“I don’t want to show life as it plays out in real time. I want to show life as I imagine it,” Julie says at the end of the table. She’s wrapped in an over-large brown coat, the shoulders puffed out. “It’s about a relationship in a fairy tale, in a fantasy, that, hopefully, many people can relate to in their own way.”
It’s not that Julie’s professors don’t trust in her vision just because the vision itself is bad, but also because of the lack of professionalism in the script. This is textbook sexism, of course, almost too obvious to be believable, but their skepticism stands. She has formatted the work incorrectly. There are inconsistencies. Julie has not escaped reality enough to be able to manipulate it in a way that anyone else can understand but her. Formalities in scripts are there not only to prove competency but as an act of generosity for a cast. A script is an object. It is translated and warped by all those on a set, from actors to costume designers to editors. If Julie believes her Souvenir to be a fairy tale, one must consider Hogg’s Souvenir, which is anything but. Certainly there is beauty to be found in The Souvenir, but at the cost of great pain. It was relatable to some, but not to all. And as Julie’s professors set down her script with petulant disinterest, I am forced to think of every two-star Letterboxd review I read of Hogg’s last film.
Julie’s mother Rosalind is a craftsperson, too—a novice ceramicist—who has built her first piece, a sugar dish. She does not announce this to the table so much as she slides the dish over to Julie. “No, I’ve given up sugar,” Julie says, irritation sitting at the back of her throat.
“Didn’t think that would ever happen,” Rosalind mutters.
“You’ve missed the significance, though, of the pot,” her father William points out. “That’s Mummy’s first artifact.”
“Do you mean you made it?” Julie asks, laughing not with but at her mother.
“I’m very proud of it,” Rosalind says, and she should be. It’s a round and charming work, flowers painted up the sides. “The top’s a bit wonky, it doesn’t really fit…”
“What are…are these…they’re a bit in the way, aren’t they?” Julie says, now reaching across the table for the pot once she has a criticism of it. She stares across the table at her mother, brows furrowed in annoyance.
“I haven’t learned how to do the handles yet,” Rosalind answers.
“Okay, well…” Julie replies, disinterested.
Rosalind is so happy to be learning, to be creating something, and Julie treats her mother as her faculty has treated her. Immersed in a world of constant criticism and nitpicking, she is incapable of seeing the sugar pot for what it is. She is incapable of saying something nice for the sake of being nice. We can all be sincere, but what’s it all for?
Later, in the living room, Julie interrogates her mother on the last time she saw Anthony. Their conversation is uneasy, both women walking on eggshells. Julie is miserable to revisit this situation, miserable that her mother cannot remember Anthony with the specifics she can. Julie loved him. For her, it was a fairytale, though we never see it as such. In term, Rosalind’s reality—her frustration and despair that the loss of Anthony has so affected her daughter—is a much uglier world to live in. It’s imperfect, imprecise. Rosalind can’t bear to say the thing Julie wants more than anything to hear: that she was sad for Anthony’s death. She wasn’t.
Later, when the spaniels come in and tea is served, Julie goes to place her mother’s sugar bowl on the mantle and it drops, shatters. How careless: one’s craft in another’s hands.
Julie paces about her apartment; Julie paces about her apartment on set. She hears Anthony’s voice echoing in the ether. Which home is which? It’s impossible to tell.
What matters most about The Souvenir Part II is that it is funny. Wonderfully, bitterly funny. Because this is a film about filmmaking, there is so much room for error and disagreement and specificity. We are watching a less competent character make a movie we have already seen, a movie that we know in an objective sense turns out beautifully complete. But Julie’s Souvenir doesn’t go well. Her leads don’t have chemistry. They don’t understand the relationship. There’s no momentum. Midway through shoots, Julie will change her mind about what time of day it is, where the camera should be. Her crew is fed up. They yell at her in the van. They talk shit about her. It is painfully real to watch her peers tiptoe around her. They know she’s working from the truth, from her truth, but that does not make the product inherently good.
Though a certain amount of bombast and coolness do not inherently make a film good, either. Julie sits in on Patrick’s edit: a disaster. Though Patrick is unyieldingly cool—pink suit, sunglasses indoors, bleached hair, smoking two cigarettes at the same time (the image of the year)—he is plagued by the same anxieties as Julie. “What were your thoughts? What did it make you feel?” Patrick, to put it generously, flips out. He yells. He cusses. He demands more days of shooting, more close-ups. He is a diva, barking, “You’re forcing me to have a tantrum!” He begs for more specific feedback. He cites Scorsese, Welles. His anxieties are Julie’s anxieties cranked up all the way. It’s all external, but his rage bubbles beneath her. Only after Patrick has stormed out of the edit does his team turn to Julie and say, “I think it’s great. He’s got it all out of perspective.”
“She has a voice,” Garance says of Julie, who sits reviewing her script just out of earshot, “but, she’s, I don’t know, too naive, too fragile, or…I think she’s lazy, too. She’s not working enough.”
The criticisms of Julie are difficult to hear, in part because Swinton Byrne’s Julie is so well-meaning, but she is in over her head, in debt, out of touch with her actors and the piece that she’s building. As she directs, she continues to steer her actors towards what it was like in real life. They’re not making a documentary, though. They’re making a feature film. But Julie is insistent upon an accuracy that is impossible to reach. There is a realism apparent to anyone who has been in creative work, who has sat through a workshop. It is not uncommon to read or bear witness to something that stems from its creator’s trauma, from the worst moments of their life, but that does not make the work emotionally fulfilling, technically sound. There is still a profound level of craft, as well as emotional maturity, required to understand one’s experience as something not wholly their own. “I think it’s difficult because I’m coming up against your idea of him rather than a reality of him, which is understandable,” Pete says, “but it makes it quite difficult for me to come from a place of truth.”
One wonders about Hogg, too, remaking her own life in her Souvenir and then once more in Julie’s Souvenir. When the versions double, when the story is retold, what shifts? What mutates? Is Anthony boorish and manipulative? Is he sensitive and sad? Did he have brown hair or a shaved head? How did he carry himself in a robe? To constantly see oneself in the third person is to dehumanize the self. Julie steps further into the world of her making and outside of her real one, gray and drizzling.
Julie’s DP revolts: “Having a shot list would be nice! Following the script would be nice! You know, having some kind of sense every single day instead of having, like, the lights changing halfway through because suddenly it’s day and then it was night and then it’s day and then it’s night—”
The magic trick of Hogg’s film is not so much that The Souvenir Part II is funnier or stranger or better than its predecessor: it’s that Part II redefines both films as another form of memoir entirely. It is a meditation on memory, on love, on struggle, on the work. It is a process documentary just as much as it is a feature film. We never see Julie’s Souvenir. We don’t know how it ‘turns out,’ in part because we’ve already seen Hogg’s Souvenir. They are vastly different, but perhaps, because we’ve seen bits of both, they are also the same. When we see Julie’s thesis film, it’s nothing we’ve seen the character film over the course of Part II. It is a work of Hogg’s. That film—the film within the film within the film, and so on––is worth keeping a mystery. It’s worth the surprise and the magic.
In her own edit bay, Julie watches her film through the eyes of her fellow student editor, Max (Joe Alwyn—so handsome, awooga, heart eyes, heart pounding out of chest). She deflects—she didn’t get all the footage she wanted, she wishes she had more of this and that—but Max is entranced, generous. He smiles as he watches. “I think it’s probably perfectly normal to come to editing in the first place and watch the rushes for the first time and feel ambivalent. It must be so strange having an idea of something and then seeing it for the first time,” he explains. “It’ll be fine. I’ll be great.” Julie mistakes this professionality for flirting, later embarrassing herself (only slightly) at the pub after their edit session. But this is the magic of creating something. Eventually you find someone who gets it. Someone who sees it the way you do. This is not love, but it’s close enough.
In Part II’s most gorgeous scene, Julie runs into Patrick out and about in London. He’s draped in a fur coat, decadent as always. He asks about her memorial—“Finished,” she tells him, with a wistful smile, because when the memorial is finished, so is Anthony— and then he asks a question that no one has yet asked her: “Did you avoid the temptation to be obvious?”
“I think so,” Julie says, a little too quickly.
“That’s all you can hope for, isn’t it?” he says.
And then, Julie is obvious: “Do you think Anthony did work for the foreign office? In the end?”
“Anthony was a junkie,” Patrick says, after a pause—a pause that carries all the weight of pity, a concrete block.
Julie’s eyes dull as she nods. It is not the answer she wants, but it’s the answer she’s known in her heart this whole time.
“Onwards,” he says.
Consider: jogging as baptism.
“Now your job is to go—job? That’s not quite the—yes! Your job. You’re a human being with life to live. That’s your job,” Julie’s therapist tells her.
When we see Julie jogging, we know she is on the mend. Hogg knows we know this. The language of movies—more specifically, the language of narrative, of betterment, of improvement—is baked into our brains. When we see Julie huffing and puffing down a country road as “There Must Be an Angel (Playing With My Heart)” by Eurythmics plays at full-volume, our hearts lift. (This may be a side effect of Eurythmics in general.) She is moving on. She is exercising! We’ve never seen Julie exercise before. We know she is different. She wants to feel good again. Let her feel good again.
So Julie works to heal, not just on film, but in her life. She redoes her apartment, getting rid of a marred wall from one of Anthony’s meltdowns. Her stuffed animals sit with her on the couch. Julie repays her mother in full. (Where this money comes from, it’s hard to say—it’s a film, after all.) She graduates. Her friends are proud of her. Some of them go on to work with her. Film school has done what it needed to do. It gave her people she trusts who she wants to work with. It’s a happy ending, isn’t it, for Julie, the filmmaker?
Part II concludes with Julie’s birthday, a raucous party with her filmmaker friends smoking and eating and drinking. They talk politics. They talk film. These are young, eager intellectuals and creatives. They’ve got their whole lives ahead of them. In the final shot of the film, though, the camera pans out, and we see that we are not in Julie’s apartment, but rather at Julie’s apartment on set. Because Julie is not real, she is a character, and whether or not she heals, it does not matter. She lives in The Souvenir and The Souvenir Part II. Her jogging is not truth. It is a fabrication. And so what we see as the film comes to a close is the crew of Hogg’s film, gathered around monitors, watching this party play out on set. The grief Hogg feels, that Julie feels: it’s a puzzle box. It will always fold in on itself. It will always be there. But Hogg can leave something behind. She can mold a pot, carve into a tree. She can make an artifact, a souvenir. A film is not an object, though, it is a living thing, and it is never done.