In 'The Souvenir Part II,' a Human-Scaled Epic Concludes

by Jake Coyle

Associated Press

Thursday October 28, 2021

Honor Swinton Byrne, left, and Tilda Swinton in a scene from "The Souvenir Part II."
Honor Swinton Byrne, left, and Tilda Swinton in a scene from "The Souvenir Part II."  (Source:A24 Pictures via AP)

Joanna Hogg first had the instinct to make a film about her then-unfolding relationship to her heroin-addicted first love — a traumatic and formative time that coincided with her coming-of-age as a filmmaker — in 1979.

Back then, she didn't feel capable of tackling something so ambitious and personal. Her career detoured, instead, into television. It wasn't until Hogg was 47 that she determinedly returned to movies. After making three well-received features, Hogg felt she was finally ready.

The result — "The Souvenir," which Hogg made in two parts, filmed two years apart — is a stunner. A sublime work of memory and autobiography, "The Souvenir" ( the second part of which A24 opens in theaters Friday ) captures a masterful filmmaker using all her accrued skill to revisit her early, half-formed life as a young filmmaker in the midst of finding herself.

"I was surprised with the making of both these films how I remembered more than I thought I did," Hogg said in a recent interview from London. (Her Zoom window read "fellini.") "Sometimes, it's just about focusing on that particular point in time and then things come up. I wouldn't have said that before the process because I didn't believe that was possible. I thought you remember what you remember, that there's no way to retrieve a memory."

"But I think, actually, you can channel something. Thoughts, ideas, memories, images, sounds. I think one can retrieve them."

As a filmmaker, Hogg is a seemingly incongruous blend of free-flowing and formalistic. Her camera movements are precise, her cuts rigorous. She dresses her sets meticulously — recreating her London apartment in Knightsbridge, using her old clothes to dress her fictional stand-in, played by Honor Swinton Byrne, with whom Hogg shared her old journals. Yet she doesn't script out dialogue. Hogg, 61, uses a 30-page document as a starting point, and shapes scenes through rehearsals and wide-ranging takes.

In the first part of "The Souvenir," we see Julie chafing at the structures imposed by her film professors, and later, in part two, dealing with crew members who want a more concrete process. But those challenges are just part of Julie's struggle to summon her voice and lift life into art. That the two films exist as they do is a kind of living proof that Hogg's way, now firmly grasped, yields something genuine and alive. We watch Julie finding her courage as a filmmaker; Hogg's is self-evident.

Tilda Swinton, who co-stars in both films as the mother of Julie (Swinton Byrne is Swinton's real-life daughter), is a longtime friend of Hogg's. She even starred in Hogg's film school final project. She recalls Hogg four decades ago taking detailed notes and photographing the views out her windows — preparation for a future, theoretical film. Swinton describes "The Souvenir" as "a beacon in a new kind of poetic cinema."

"When I think of these films, I am reminded of that sense in which the project of cinema is that of a defiance of time," Swinton writes in an email.

"It takes enormous heart and nerve to be as honest as she is about people — and to give her colleagues the support to be as open as her films require us all to be," Swinton continues. "It's a high road and, as all the muddiest are, both unassailable pure and also solidly earthed."

The two parts of "The Souvenir" have won widespread acclaim, from the Sundance Film Festival to this year's Cannes and New York festivals. Some of its most ardent fans are filmmakers. Martin Scorsese is an executive producer.

"I think that 'The Souvenir Parts I & II' is an epic, on a completely human scale," Scorsese says by email.

While Scorsese recalls racing to make his first movie before he was 25 (how old Orson Welles was when he made "Citizen Kane"), he recognizes a different trajectory in Hogg.

"Joanna started at a different moment and took her own path, and she began in a very different frame of mind," says Scorsese. "It's reflected in the work, I think. There's a kind of clarity there, an intensity of focus, that you don't find with someone younger — intensity yes, but of a different kind. But also, of course, it's Joanna herself."

In conjuring her own entry into moviemaking, Hogg has also led Swinton Byrne in her first steps into film. Despite growing up on movie sets, "The Souvenir" marks the 24-year-old's debut. Hogg, unsatisfied with everyone she auditioned, cast her just two weeks before starting the first part, when Swinton Byrne was 19. Julie's evolution is also Swinton Byrne's.

"So much happened in those two years between part one and part two. I went away to Namibia for 10 months. I like to think I did a lot of growing up in that time," Swinton Byrne says by Zoom from Edinburgh, Scotland, where she's studying psychology. "So I think I went into the second one with much more of a backbone."

"I changed, myself," she adds before laughing. "There wasn't a lot of acting going on."

To Swinton Byrne, the second part of "The Souvenir" is particularly empowering. After finishing her studies, she expects to keep acting.

"Hollywood depicts this ideal expectation of what to experience in your 20s and 30s, so this is why I'm really moved by both films," Swinton Byrne says. "These two films, as a whole, shed light on making mistakes, and how that's completely normal and completely healthy, and the more mistakes you make, the more you learn."

With fiction and life merging so much, Hogg has sometimes, herself, been uncertain about what's real and what's not.

"The whole thing becomes very confused, not in an uninteresting way, and very hard to unpack," Hogg says, smiling. "Sometimes now if I see an image from the film, there's a momentary confusion in my mind as to whether that's a still from the film or a still from my own life."

Having spent so much of her career pushing against the normal methods of filmmaking, Hogg — her voice as a director crystal clear — feels drawn to trying her hand in more prescribed genres. Film noir, where the past is never through with anyone, is especially appealing right now.

"I'm interested now in playing with known shapes within my parameters," she says.

Last year, Hogg shot "The Eternal Daughter," a Wales-set mystery about long-buried secrets, with Swinton. "I have been her playmate for 50 years and now we are feeling as if we are finally beginning our work together," says Swinton.

As much as "The Souvenir" was obsessed with recapturing a long ago, Hogg already feels the films moving away from her. The movies, too, are now a memory, and difficult to readily retrieve.

"Part II gets harder and harder to talk about because it's receded," Hogg says. "They float away into the ether."

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