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One of this year’s best movies is about its own making

The Souvenir: Part II continues its director’s memoir project.

A young woman in a pinstriped jacket sits at a table in a nice restaurant.
Honor Swinton Byrne in The Souvenir: Part II.
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

The Souvenir was one of the greatest films of 2019, but its best revelations arrived off-screen — the wildest of which might have been about the set on which it was shot. We’re used to hearing about “thinly veiled” fiction based on the artist’s life, but this was something altogether pluckier. Director Joanna Hogg used The Souvenir to tell the story of a film student’s doomed romance with an alluring man she too-slowly realizes is addicted to heroin — a story based on her own memories.

And to underline just how close the plot hews to her recollections, Hogg had her fictionalized stand-in, Julie (played by Honor Swinton Byrne), live in a flat that was an exact replica of the one Hogg lived in when she was a film student.

That kind of precise facsimile is wild and time-consuming to create, and indicated that The Souvenir wasn’t just a fictionalized account “based on” Hogg’s memories; it embodied them. Swinton Byrne’s casting added another layer of reality-bending, as her real-life mother, Tilda Swinton, not only played Julie’s mother in the film but had been a close friend of Hogg’s in film school, starring in Hogg’s graduation thesis project. Sure, there were still actors, putting a little distance between Hogg (who doesn’t appear on screen) and her avatar in Julie. But those memories and that distance made The Souvenir, in essence, a memoir.

Imagine intentionally trying to reconstruct, visually, a time of great trauma, grief, and growth in your life. Hogg did it, as many filmmakers dipping into memoir have. Alfonso Cuarón did it in his 2018 film Roma; Kenneth Branagh does it in his upcoming film Belfast. Jennifer Fox says her 2018 film The Tale is a forthright memoir. Terrence Malick works in a deeply memoiristic mode in films like The Tree of Life (2011) and To the Wonder (2012). Those are just a few examples. Each movie is built on memory, revisiting and evoking for the audience what it was like to live that filmmaker’s life.

A young woman stands behind a row of monitors on a film set.
Honor Swinton Byrne as Julie, in The Souvenir: Part II, behind a monitor on a film set.

For her new film, Hogg goes further, and in so doing makes one of 2021’s best movies. In The Souvenir: Part II — which picks up just after The Souvenir concludes — Julie, processing the death of her boyfriend Anthony (Tom Burke), attempts to make a film that is, well, The Souvenir: constructing an identical apartment set, casting a friend as herself, and so on.

Julie is still a student director, and she has a lot to learn. Her cinematographer, a classmate, grows frustrated by her unclear communication. Her parents are supportive but not entirely sure what she’s doing. The program directors tell her that her proposed project isn’t sufficiently precise, that she hasn’t made it clear to them what she aims to express.

Well, of course it’s not precise. Julie is using her film to sort out what she feels about Anthony, in life and in death. She’s not even sure anymore who he was — did he even work for the British Foreign Office, as he told everyone? Did he actually love her? What was he thinking before he died? She’s still searching, both for him and for herself.

Julie’s film — like The Souvenir (part one) — comprises her memories, moments told from her point of view. Her actors, though sympathetic to what she’s trying to do, are baffled as to why her characters act the way they do. So, in a sense, is she; why didn’t she see warning signs? Her crew is frustrated by her insistence on shooting scenes from the perspective of her own Julie stand-in, but it’s all she knows. It’s not a normal way to make a movie, for them. It’s also not an entirely normal way for us to experience one.

The memory-driven mode in which Julie is working is just far enough outside convention to be tricky for her and her crew to fathom, and the same might be true for her audience, too. Movies have long trained us to think that we’re seeing the action from a somewhat objective point of view. What it can see might be restricted, but it still records dispassionately. In most films, you expect that what you see on screen is what “happened,” at least in the world of the film. You don’t expect a camera to be an unreliable narrator, to miss things.

Of course, that’s certainly not true with all films. Many filmmakers across the world have experimented with the potential for a camera to record subjectivity, to show a version of a story through the eyes of a character rather than through its more omniscient lens. Even Hollywood movies toy with subjectivity. Ridley Scott’s The Last Duel recently did this, drawing on a storytelling device mostly famously employed decades earlier by Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon. Or consider the way Ron Howard’s A Beautiful Mind sets up expectations of objectivity, then subverts them.

In films like these, we’re not literally seeing from the characters’ points of view, as if the camera is in their eyes — the character whose point of view is being represented physically appears onscreen. Instead, the film is capturing the “reality” that exists in their version of events. It’s their memories we’re watching.

Memory is awfully slippery and prone to error, as scientists and anyone who’s tried to tell a story about their own childhood with a parent present in the room can attest. You remember the dog being ugly or the argument being heated; your mother remembers something quite different. This is why the literary genre of memoir is distinct from biography. One presumes a more subjective point of view than the other; one aims to construct a story from memories, while the other leans on documents, histories, and recorded fact (yet there’s plenty of overlap between the two).

A young woman and her mother stand in an open doorway, a bouquet of flowers between them.
Honor Swinton Byrne and Tilda Swinton in The Souvenir: Part II.

The Souvenir was Hogg’s memoir, with Julie functioning as a stand-in for Hogg herself. (Not too much would have changed about the way we watch the film if Hogg had called the character Joanna.) Now, in The Souvenir: Part II, Hogg adds another doll to the matryoshka. She’s processing her memories of, well, trying to process her memories.

For Hogg, memories — hers or Julie’s — are subtly linked to shifting color palettes. In the film’s earliest scenes, as Julie’s parents try desperately to buoy their daughter following Anthony’s death, the family is shown all sitting at a dinner table spread with white linens, wearing white clothing, in a very brightly lit dining room. Even the food (white fish, white potatoes) matches. In Julie’s memory, her parents are working hard to keep things light in the face of her monstrous devastation.

Not long after, an image of a little bright red blood accidentally smeared onto bedsheets gives way, in the next scene, to a flashy red car on a movie set. There’s a woman in the car, wearing a red dress, dabbing red lipstick onto her lips with her fingers, her nails painted a fiery shade to match. A few scenes later, Julie has handed out copies of her screenplay to the film program advisers, tied with bits of red ribbon.

Did all of these things look this way when they really happened? Only Joanna Hogg knows — or maybe she doesn’t. Maybe the memories have flashed back to her with this coloration because they’re imbued with a different emotion, even one that is hard to express. The Souvenir: Part II is in some ways a valentine to Hogg’s younger self, who was fumbling through her own messy emotions by making art. In her Souvenir films, Hogg is doing the same thing once again, but this time with some distance, and the ability to see things, if not objectively, at least a little differently.

We experience reality from our own subjective vantage point, and that’s never more true than when we’re looking backward at our own experiences. That’s what The Souvenir: Part II explores — fumbling youthful attempts to make life into art, and then to make art back into life. (The film is a perfect pairing with Mia Hansen-Løve’s Bergman Island, which also explores the way memories filter through the subconscious and surface in movies.)

And Hogg shows her hand in the most beautiful way. At the end of The Souvenir: Part II, Julie is throwing a birthday party in her flat, just as she did at the beginning of The Souvenir. She is a little older now, a little wiser, though she still has much to learn. At least now she knows it. She cuts cake, takes pictures of her friends, and looks happy. Then suddenly, the camera pulls back, and we realize we’re looking at people not in Julie’s “real” flat, but on the set of a movie.

As the camera pans left, we see a whole film crew standing outside the scene in which the revelers are acting out a party, watching, with equipment and catering tables set up. They’re on a soundstage. We hear a voice yell “Cut!” and the screen goes black. I suspect it’s Hogg’s voice, reminding us once again that sometimes, the best we can do with our hurt is find a way to make a story of it, and give it, as a hard-won gift, to others.

The Souvenir: Part II opens in theaters on October 29.

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