NEW YORK (NYTIMES) – Sequels, spin-offs and origin stories fill the multiplexes, but it is vanishingly rare to see two feature-length dramas centred on the same real-world character. Enter The Souvenir, two films directed by Joanna Hogg, 61, on a subject that is also uncommon on screen: a young woman finding her way in life and coming into her own.
In The Souvenir, released in 2019, Julie (played by British actress Honor Swinton Byrne) is a film school student in 1980s London. Her relationship with Anthony, a witty, debonair older man, goes off the rails as it emerges that he is addicted to heroin.
The Souvenir Part II, which opened in the United States last Friday, follows a solo Julie working out her voice as a person and as a director – a new rich chapter of experience where a single film might have declared The End.
Hogg, who is British, said in an interview the day after her movie’s New York Film Festival premiere last month: “You don’t normally have that opportunity with the story, to have a break in the middle and think about what you’re doing and approach things differently the second way.” Part II takes place only a few days after Part I, but was shot two years later.
Until recently, Hogg’s films have been like a much-beloved secret. “Joanna Hogg – where have you been all my movie-loving life?” The New York Times (NYT) film critic Manohla Dargis wrote when the director’s first three features were finally released in the US in 2014.
Fellow NYT film critic A.O. Scott called the first part “an absolute joy to watch”. Distributed by the brand-savvy A24, The Souvenir Part II is the latest entry in Hogg’s ardently admired oeuvre.
Her fans include Ari Aster, director of horror film Midsommar (2019), who said in an e-mail: “At her best, she lends a subtle, deeply individual strangeness to the quotidian.” He praised her as “a fastidious and texture-obsessed diarist in the best sense”. Another fan: former US president Barack Obama, who counted Part I among his favourite movies of 2019.
Julie’s story draws closely on Hogg’s memories. Like Julie, she studied film-making in the 1980s, at the National Film and Television School in England, and dated a devastatingly charming man with an all-consuming drug addiction.
And Julie’s background, like Hogg’s, is solidly upper middle class. Visits to the country home of Julie’s parents punctuate both films; artefacts, clothing and photos from Hogg’s life appear throughout, too.
Part I broaches the notion of privilege, as Julie faces teachers sceptical of her initial proposal to make a film about a struggling port city.
Part II sees her coming out of her shell and, as Hogg put it, “joining the world, joining life”.
Hogg went on to a career in British television and did not direct her first theatrical feature until 2007 at age 47: Unrelated, starring Tom Hiddleston, also making his feature debut.
The Souvenir Part II imagines a different trajectory for Julie, giving her a freedom Hogg did not have at the time.
“I didn’t get to make a film at film school that spoke about the relationship that I’d been in,” the director said. Friendly and low-key in a subdued dark top and pants, she chose her words firmly, but with a dry sense of understatement that would fit without a rustle right into a Joanna Hogg film.
“It was important for her to be less naive, and therefore more in control of her life and her story.”
The ties of friends and family are further entwined through Hogg’s cast. The director knew Swinton Byrne as the daughter of an old schoolmate, Tilda Swinton. (Hogg is Swinton Byrne’s godmother.)
Swinton starred in Hogg’s real graduate film, Caprice (1986), and plays Julie’s doting mother in both parts of The Souvenir. Yet Swinton Byrne was cast less than a month before shooting on Part I began. Hogg was visiting Swinton about playing Julie’s mother, but still did not have a Julie.
“I was getting onto a train to go back to London, and Honor was arriving from London coming home,” Hogg said. The two chatted on the platform about “what it is to be in your early 20s”, and for Hogg, it just “clicked”.
“I feel like I was very like Julie when I was a bit younger. You know how insecure it is,” Swinton Byrne, 24, said, bubbly over the phone from Edinburgh, where she is studying psychology after a teaching stint in Namibia, among other things.
Swinton Byrne’s Julie reckons with the past in The Souvenir Part II, but spends a lot of time on a soundstage, leading her crew and explaining motivations to her actors.
Hogg “dramatises the fragmentary life of the imagination, completing a story that was full of hesitations in the first place”, critic Molly Haskell said in an e-mail, invoking Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet. “To my mind, the only remotely analogous cinematic experiment of recent years is Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy (Before Sunrise, 1995; Before Sunset, 2004; Before Midnight, 2013).”
Hogg is already editing her next film, The Eternal Daughter, a ghost story starring Swinton. In the meantime, Hogg’s Souvenir star, Swinton Byrne, seemed still to be reflecting on her character’s two-part journey.
“It is like watching a friend get up on her feet after a really intense break-up or loss,” she said. “It’s what I waited for a long time, to see Julie, whom I see as a friend, become a full person.”