Joanna Hogg’s new film, “The Souvenir: Part II,” belongs to a classic modern genre: it’s a movie about the making of a movie. Its protagonist, Julie Harte (Honor Swinton Byrne), is a London film student in the late nineteen-eighties who’s preparing to make her thesis movie. Hogg depicts both the efforts that go into its production and the thesis film itself—and the contrast between the dramatization of Julie’s life and the film that Julie makes is the intellectual essence of Hogg’s movie.
In Hogg’s 2017 film “The Souvenir,” set in early-eighties London, Julie (played by Swinton Byrne, then in her first movie role), signs up for film school and gets involved with a haughty and acerbic man named Anthony (Tom Burke), who turns out to be a heroin addict. Julie struggles to find her footing at school, and the relationship founders on Anthony’s lies and misdeeds. In “The Souvenir: Part II,” Julie is grieving for Anthony and attempting to take stock of the relationship as, meanwhile, she gains experience working on other people’s films. Her professors (older white men) deem the new script for her thesis film (which is different from the one she’d planned to make in “The Souvenir”) unacceptably unprofessional—but she undertakes it nevertheless, with a substantial loan from her parents (played by the actress’s real-life mother, Tilda Swinton, and James Spencer Ashworth), who live in a lavish house on an enormous spread of land.
What Julie titles that thesis film is—yes—“The Souvenir.” That’s also the title of a painting by Fragonard, which is in the Wallace Collection, in London, and which plays a substantial symbolic role in Julie’s relationship with Anthony. A large reproduction of the painting is featured at the beginning of the thesis film, and Julie herself is the star. The fantasy-like film finds her in a toga, passing between Greek columns, then proceeding through a door and coming out the other side in the strict dress and hair style of nineteen-forties melodrama, in black-and-white images, in front of a huge yet statically photographic set of period tenement buildings. Soon she’s in a splashy, bright-colored nineteen-fifties musical, looking on sadly, in a pink sweater, at a sumptuously costumed couple dancing together. Then she’s in a black dress and veil in the haunted forest of a horror movie. She observes a gondola (recalling Venice, a crucial site of her relationship with Anthony), and then—as a group of people from Julie’s life (including her parents and her psychiatrist) turn up—time seems to reverse itself and Julie passes backward through the movie styles into something like ordinary reality, in which she’s jogging in a field to the beat of pop music.
This film-within-a-film, which runs fifteen or twenty minutes long, is an aesthetic and emotional thrill, and unfortunately it is a far fuller display of cinematic imagination than the rest of “The Souvenir: Part II.” Julie, as presented in the movie, shows little of the creative energy, the curiosity, the idiosyncrasy, or the range of knowledge and ideas that it takes to make a movie of such daring—which is a strange thing, given that Joanna Hogg, the very character Julie is based on, did make exactly such a film. To put it differently, the character of Julie has little of Hogg’s voice detectably in her. She is portrayed via facts minus feelings, actions minus thoughts, and Hogg films her in a bland and affirmative manner that hardly merits being called a style. It’s neither inflected nor radically austere (in the manner of Chantal Akerman) but merely photographic, depicting events in a way that doesn’t exactly reject dramatic appropriateness but limns the scenes and performances with just enough mood to tell viewers what they’re supposed to feel—but gently, with dignified reserve that denies both the rhetorical power of melodrama and the extreme physicality of Akermanian or Bressonian starkness.
Instead, there’s an accidental comedy in the film’s miserliness with information, as when, very early on, Julie’s father asks her about Anthony. Did she know “what was going on with this chap?” At that moment, Hogg cuts to the family at the dinner table; whether Julie said something in response to her father will never be known. The character may as well be wearing a muzzle. When a young man comes over for sex (the whole encounter is a pneumatic minute), he and Julia say almost nothing to each other. Julie’s shown sitting at her desk and writing—but writing what? Hogg surely knows, too, but can’t be bothered to show or tell us. Even the many scenes that take place in Julie’s milieu of film students, professors, and movie-world associates—by far the best dramatic scenes in the film, for the simple reason that they appear to deliver the substance of experience—find her terse, passive, and neutral, when not totally silent.
The movie pays copious but thin attention to Julie’s activities in and around film school (including a shot of workers who have removed a sign reading “Raynham Film School” and replaced it with one marking “Raynham Film & Television School”). The real-life director Richard Ayoade, who appeared in the first film, returns in the role of an arrogant director named Patrick whose uncompromising artistic attitude and aggressively candid remarks both irritate Julie and challenge her passivity and equivocation. Some of the action takes place on the film-school studio set where Julie is making her movie, and it’s nearly interesting to see her change her mind on the fly and demand of the cinematographer (also a student) that the angle be changed after he has already set lights to match her original plan. An argument follows, but Hogg doesn’t see the wrangling through to any useful resolution. Throughout “The Souvenir: Part II,” it’s utterly unclear how Julie feels about her film, what she says about it, how her cast and crew react to it.
The movie is without irony, humor, ideas, a sense of anything going on in the world near or far. (In the absence of Julie’s expression of thoughts about politics or current events, a scene in which she cries while watching a TV report on the fall of the Berlin Wall plays like yet more unintended comedy.) Along with a seeming fear of ornament—of presenting the events of the film with any inflection to indicate its emotional tenor or personal perspective—Hogg looks back at her own life impersonally, retentively, in detached and superficial pieces, as if assembling a forensic composite of herself. The world that Hogg’s Julie lives in can seem like even more of a fantasy than the artifices and impossibilities of the film-within-a-film that Julie directs. The movie’s solid and fascinating framework remains disappointingly undeveloped.
And yet back to those fifteen or twenty minutes. They suggest that when she—Hogg—wants to do so, she can tap into a wellspring of the sublime. In that sense, Hogg has put critics to a paradoxical test: with “The Souvenir: Part II,” she’s made two films in one, in radically different styles, and she defies viewers to appreciate both—and it’s in that paradox that Hogg expresses an overarching idea and a personal point of view. It’s telling that she unleashes her formidable aesthetic sensibility, her power to produce pleasure through style, only within the distancing quotation marks of a film-within-a-film. The entire construction of “The Souvenir: Part II,” the connection between its drama and Julie’s student film, reflects an earnest and principled, if simplistic, didacticism about the pain and the privilege that allow aesthetic pleasure to be created. The money is guilt, and Hogg’s cinematic austerity amounts to a rejection of the pleasures it affords.