Arthouse sequels are a rare breed, as is British director Joanna Hogg, who brings her distinctive vision to Cannes’ Directors’ Fortnight with The Souvenir Part II. A follow up to 2019’s lauded, semi-autobiographical drama The Souvenir, it once again stars Honor Swinton Byrne as Julie, now mourning the loss of her boyfriend Anthony (Tom Burke), a drug addict who claimed to work for the Foreign Office. His spectre looms large as Julie drifts through film school, eventually making a film about her experiences with Anthony with the help of her peers.
Like Hogg films Unrelated, Archipelago and The Souvenir, this favors long takes and understated dialogue and explores the world of the privileged. Julie only has to ask her mother once, meekly, for £10,000 so she can make her film. Byrne’s real-life mother and Cannes stalwart Tilda Swinton puts in a generous, gently amusing turn as one half of a couple that’s faintly bemused by their daughter’s chosen profession, but happy to indulge it. Much of their conversation revolves around the pots that Swinton’s character has started to make in her classes. When Julie accidentally shatters her mother’s treasured first attempt, the resulting fuss — or lack thereof — says much about their culture of politeness and repression.
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Julie is in many ways a clumsy person: Hogg is not seeking to aggrandize herself in this semi-autobiography, instead showing a young woman who is slightly apologetic and finding her way, yet who also has strong opinions about how to tell her own story. Once again, Byrne’s performance is understated to a fault: those who found The Souvenir a little too mumbly might have the same issue here.
More ambitious in scope than The Souvenir, this explores the challenges of student filmmaking with a humorous touch that’s likely to appeal to industry audiences. Richard Ayoade’s precious, egotistical young director makes a welcome return, indulging in long rants about everything from the English weather to his colleagues’ generic responses to his work. His musical is one of many films within this film, as the work of Julie’s colleagues explores varying genres of cinema.
Harris Dickinson is excellent in a key role that was reportedly eyed for Robert Pattinson: that of the actor Julie casts as her troubled paramour in The Souvenir (yes, the student film is even called by the name of her 2019 success). Alice McMillan has a small but amusing role as an actress friend who is patently offended that Julie hasn’t cast her in her film. And there’s a key role for Stranger Things actor Charlie Heaton, who participates in a sex scene so frank that it caused a man sitting near me to exclaim loudly, “Well, I haven’t seen THAT before”.
This scene also ties in to a growing trend for a frankness about female bodily functions, in everything from Saint Frances to TV’s I May Destroy You. Hogg doesn’t often obviously engage with feminist themes, but this feels like a statement: women bleed, get over it. She also implicitly explores the challenges facing female filmmakers when a male crew member has a loud, patronizing rant about the shoot for the Souvenir — bemoaning the lack of a clear plan and the constant surprises, including being asked to shoot a nighttime scene in the day. That his complaint is also quite understandable plays into Hogg’s honest, self aware style — but there’s definitely a gendered note to this and Ayoade’s character, that contrasts with Byrne’s performance as the quiet, self-controlled helmer.
Tonal shifts both enliven and confuse The Souvenir Part II: the final student presentation plays with countless genres in a way that’s hopefully deliberately pretentious, but also a little wearing. Nevertheless, this is a witty, fitfully intriguing sequel that’s a good fit for Cannes: Hogg may be the most French director to come out of England.