We live in a world where practically every studio film that does moderately well at the box-office is being greenlit for sequels, often before the original film is even released. It’s to the point where some films hardly feel like films anymore, but rather advertisements for the next one—which, in turn, becomes an advertisement for the one after that. This can reasonably make any viewer cynical of sequels at large, yet every now and then something can come along to turn the whole enterprise on its head. That’s what we’ve gotten with Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir Part II.
The announcement that The Souvenir would receive a sequel was a shock to many. No one could have expected that this A24 prestige picture from a very serious and individualist filmmaker like Hogg would be lining up in theaters next to Ghostbusters: Afterlife and Halloween Kills in the fall 2021 season. However, The Souvenir was always designed by Hogg to be a two-part story, something which makes sense in how fully-formed the second part feels. This isn’t at all a film that was made up on the fly in the aftermath of a $300 million blockbuster.
While the first Souvenir in many ways feels like a complete piece, the second demonstrates how an artist is able to reinvent a story in a bold and exciting new way. Following film student Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne) and her tumultuous relationship with Anthony (Tom Burke), The Souvenir drew from autobiographical elements of Hogg’s life, giving us a window into her experience. The Souvenir Part II pushes that element into even more daring meta territory, depicting Julie in the aftermath of that struggling relationship as she uses that life experience to fuel her art. Julie, in essence, begins to make The Souvenir.
It’s the kind of endeavor that can make your head spin if Hogg pushes too far into Charlie Kaufman territory with it, yet she threads the line expertly between what we’re seeing on screen and what we know of the metafictional aspects of the storytelling. Comparisons are felt between The Souvenir duology and the great meta mastermind Abbas Kiarostami’s Koker Trilogy, which saw each film pull the audience back one layer to approach the idea of filmmaking and storytelling in a more inquisitive, introspective way. While The Souvenir Part II remains Julie’s story, it is also very much a story about stories, about art, and about how artists take from their own experience to fuel their creativity and what they put out into the world.
One of the keys to success for Hogg’s film is the fact that, with all of these added layers, she never loses sight of Julie herself. Her portrayal of this quasi-surrogate version of herself is as nuanced and human as she’s ever been, with the audience watching her find her voice over the course of this film. It’s a beautiful transformation, a rocky one filled with highs and lows, self-doubt and self-actualization. Byrne’s ownership of the role becomes even more pronounced in this film, mirroring the evolution of the character and her self-efficacy.
We see Julie evolve before our very eyes as she cracks the codes for her project, all culminating in the climactic reveal of said short film, titled (appropriately) The Souvenir. Unfolding Julie’s film to an audience on-screen as well as those off, this sequence is one of true mesmerizing beauty, unquestionably one of the highlights of 2021 in cinema. In many ways, it’s a demonstration of the aura Hogg places over the entirety of The Souvenir Part II. It is beguiling, mesmerizing, utterly subversive, and wonderfully transformative. Each step feels like an evolution into something new—the portrait of an artist fully fleshing herself out, with us along for the ride.