Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir was among the most buzzed-about films I saw at Sundance in 2019. It won the World Cinema Dramatic Grand Jury Prize and received critical acclaim across the board. And to be perfectly honest, I never quite got what the fuss was all about. Honor Swinton Byrne solidified herself as a star to watch and having the elder Swinton as a co-star is always a bonus. The slow pace grated on my nerves, though. While the central toxic relationship was identifiable, seeing the main character make the same mistakes grew tedious and frustrating. The ending ultimately left me asking, “what was the point?”
Maybe that’s because it was only the first part of Hogg’s semi-autobiographical story. The Souvenir Part II is the sequel I didn’t know I wanted. Even fans of the first film probably weren’t expecting or clamoring for a follow-up. Yet, The Souvenir Part II improves upon its predecessor and leaves you with a stronger appreciation for the original. That’s not to say the sequel isn’t without some of the first film’s shortcomings. It’s another slow burn that occasionally tries the audience’s patience. The journey and final destination are far more satisfying, however.
One of the sequel’s advantages is that we don’t have to deal with Tom Burke’s Anthony anymore. That’s not a knock against Burke, who did an effective job at portraying an unlikable addict. Burke was so effective that you just wanted Burke to get his comeuppance already. It took far too long for Burke to die in Part I, but he’s thankfully buried by the beginning of Part II. The ordeal has left Julie (Byrne) a little wiser and warier, but she’s still very much lost. Rather than confront her heartbreak and anger directly, Julie throws herself into her graduating film.
Hogg based The Souvenir on her experiences in film school and relationship with an older man. If the first film reflected Hogg’s life, then the sequel reflects her art. It’s a unique approach to semi-autobiographical storytelling that could only be told in two parts. That doesn’t completely change my opinion of the original film, but as a whole, The Souvenir works best as a double feature. Part I is a cautionary tale that sees Julie hit rock bottom. Part II is about healing and the power that cinema can have in that recovery process.
We all express grief in different ways. Julie can’t articulate everything she’s experiencing to her loved ones. Filmmaking is the only way for her to work through these complicated emotions. Much like the first film’s titular painting, Julie paints an intimate portrait of love, longing, and nostalgia. Through her film, Julie not only finds closure, but also finds her voice. Anthony consumed Julie’s life in the original film, making it impossible for her to flourish. While Anthony still impacts Julie from beyond the grave, she’s finally able to take control of her story. Is there room for The Souvenir Part III? Julie’s arc seems completed for now, but if Hogg has more to say, I’m all ears.