The Souvenir Part II; the Story of a Story.
By Matilda Neill
Watching Julie Hart, the budding director and protagonist of Hogg’s autobiographical film The Souvenir Part II, sit across from her conservative parents in their beautiful Norfolk home, biting her tongue as they scoff at ‘art-school’ and exclaim that it sounds like ‘an awful lot of fun’, I concluded that this film is about a young woman’s attempt to make herself important. Parents, stuffy professors, and outspoken classmates must be proved wrong, her life and her story will be shared with the world, no matter what the cost. Hogg’s much anticipated sequel grapples with this ambition, both in the content of the story and its existence within the cinematic world, which in turn become interchangeable concepts as the film tells the story of its own making.
The Souvenir Part II opens where the first leaves off, the latter part of the 80s, with Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne) grieving the death of her addict boyfriend, Anthony (Tom Burke). The first film follows their tumultuous relationship and shows Julie becoming passive and mute at the hands of a man who took up the space she could not. Julie is blinded by his commanding nature and wittingly oblivious to his red flags. She stops attending film school, borrows money relentlessly and loses herself along the way.
In Part II, Julie resolves to take that space up herself. Anthony’s death is both the catalyst for her return to school and the inspiration for her graduation film, titled ‘The Souvenir’, a reference to a painting by Jean-Honore Fragonard, which she and Anthony had both loved, and, of course, the name of Hogg’s prequel. Part II is the story of the making of Part I; neither could exist without the other. Equally, Julie’s success in the second film cannot exist without the tragedies of the first, a remark on the necessity of lived experience and, an insinuation that female desire does not correspond with female success.
Julie is, primarily, a collector, an observer; not a participant. This is signified by her frustratingly quiet nature and speaks to a broader understanding of what it means to be an artist, and what it means to be a woman, existing on the sidelines as others speak for you. Her wealth and privilege also feed this, she can experience the world as a voyeur, needing little from it in return, with the time and resources to mess up and start again. The sex scene early on, with the student actor (Charlie Heaton), is a perfect example of her passive but observant existence. He arrives, late at night at her door and she offers no rebuttal as he goes down on her before kissing her, covering them both in her menstrual blood. She is dazed and blank, perhaps an appropriate response to the first sexual encounter following the loss of a loved one, or maybe she is gathering stories for her next project.
Watching Part II is like experiencing someone else’s memory; a delicately curated memory complete with nostalgic 80s alt-pop, excitable peers on the cusp of self-discovery or self-destruction, and punctuated with images of English flora. A combination of digital shots, shots on 60 mm film, black and white snippets from the graduates’ portfolios, footage from Hogg’s own time at university, and scenes of Julie crying at the Berlin Wall coming down or running through an open field, work together to create a textural sense of recollection that imitates the real way we piece together seemingly disparate moments of our past.
Julie’s mourning echoes this duplicity; her grief is the source of inspiration for her film but her retrospective reflection on her loss makes her grief film-like. Anthony is elevated in her memory and her acute attachment to the story makes it difficult for her to take criticism or explain her choices to her creative team. Needing to mine your life for creative output encourages you to live a life worthy of being mined and, when your story is being cut apart and rearranged for mass consumption, you cannot untangle yourself from external measurements of worth. Julie’s self and her work are inextricable and therefore the battle to create her film is a battle to become the person she wants to be.
Julie takes this idea of life as art to the absolute extreme, even her bed in her thesis film is the bed she shared with Anthony. However, there is still a sense of hesitation, an unwillingness to be completely exposed or to have to explain herself. Julie shares little of her inner thoughts and is closed and disconnected from those around her. Similarly, Part I was characterised by static shots where action moves either side of the camera, conversations take place off-screen and we are left outside as doors close in front of us. Part II shows a deliberate discussion around this choice, Julie says ‘the camera cannot see what she does not’. She is not only excluding the audience, she is excluding herself and what appears to be a stylistic device is actually a recreation of reality, or rather, the version of reality Julie remembers. She is torn between wanting to be invisible and wanting to be seen, wanting to express and wanting to forget, wanting to be loved, and wanting to be powerful.
Julie is aware of this contradiction, she talks to her therapist about loneliness and admits, exceptionally candidly for a character who keeps her cards close to her chest, that she doesn’t just miss Anthony for who he was but for who he was to her. She misses having a companion, which curiously, she describes as someone to make decisions for her. Her personal desires to be somewhat manipulated conflicts with her creative passions to be a director, in charge of her story, a dichotomy reflected again and again in women led narratives battling between choice and expectation, desire and duty. Even Julie’s mother (Tilda Swinton, Swinton Byrne’s mother in real life) battles with this. When Julie stays with her, recovering from her trauma she ‘hope[s] she can stay for a really long time’, an innocent enough wish for an empty nester but one that is riddled with implications of wishing for her daughter to rely on her.
The apex of these contradictions, and indeed the climax of the movie, is the film within a film scene at Julie’s graduation screening. We’ve seen a version of this film, Hogg’s prequel and now we see a second version, the dreamscape surrealist whirlwind version, where metaphor and symbolism reign supreme and that Julie would never be able to make in real life, bound as she is by worry and other people’s perceptions of her. Most notable is the image of Anthony being “shot” by Julie’s camera, a visual representation of what his death enabled her to do or perhaps, how she killed him with her projected version of his character. After the film screening, she is liberated, more confident, more able to explain her choices, able to pay her mum back, essentially able to right her wrongs. The film and Anthony become one, in her release of the first, she is able to finally let go of the latter.
The metatextual elements are overriding and inescapable, but in an exciting way that reels you in as an observer and leaves you tangled in the multiple strands that tie together actors and directors, real and imagined stories, Hogg to her younger self and the audience to a complex and beautiful recreation. The last image we are left with is Hogg herself calling cut on the final scene of the film, a compelling ending that reminds the audience whose story this is. Hogg has been there the whole time and we are privileged to be witnessing this snippet of her world just as she has been privileged enough to share it. I think this is a powerful message to be left on, and one I am retaining in light of the pressures to be exposed and exposing in our work. With the right level of determination, help from those who came before us and maybe some shoulder pads, we can control our own narratives.
Matilda is a writer and performer from Newcastle, though currently based in Manchester. She is a founding member of Your Aunt Fanny, an all womxn comedy collective from the North East, who are currently creating their third show, ‘Muff Said’, and whose podcast, ‘Match Made in 7’ is currently available across all main streaming services. Matilda wrote her debut play ‘Red is the New Blue’ for Live Theatre in 2014 and has since been commissioned to write a Christmas Show and comedy shorts for Channel 4. Matilda runs a blog on Substack, ‘Don’t Forget to Brush Your Teeth and Wash Your Face’, an intimate look at seasonal change, and has written essays for The Gallyry Magazine, Mslexia and Antigone Journal.
PREVIOUS WORK FROM MATILDA NEILL
SOCIAL MEDIA Personal Instagram: @matmaisyface
Company Instagram: @yourauntfanny