Joanna Hogg has given us a sequel to her 2019 “A Souvenir”, and it’s a head-scratcher. But the positive of that includes “intriguing”, “tantalizing” and “wittily playful”, along with the negative of “frustrating” and “confusing”. Critical response has been even more positive than for the first part, which will no doubt help to finance other sequels. So far, she seems the film equivalent of Norwegian novelist Karl Ove Knausgaard.
It is London in the eighties. The protagonist is Julie, a young film student played by Honor Swinton-Byrne, who is clearly meant as autobiographical for the director. The first film left off with the suicide overdose of Julie’s older lover, Anthony, a British diplomat. I remarked in my review that the story, as it developed, suggested that Julie was consciously attracted to Anthony because she saw their affair as material for a film. She had been previously told by a faculty committee that her work was devoid of any personal connection to her subject matter, which was labor conditions in Britain. She had lived a privileged youth in an upper-class household; her efforts to present working class misery were plastic. That was the springboard for the affair. How much more personal can you get? Hogg told the story fairly directly, in a style that was richly textured and superlatively acted. The too languid pace was a minor flaw. But the clumsy evasion of irony in dealing with this set-up was not minor.
The ecstatic critical response to the sequel is mostly about style, not content. Hogg is far more confident here, demanding our constant attention. Scenes are short, abrupt, shifting from achingly intimate to the merely decorative, with no clear pattern. And the photography, by David Raedeker, is simply gorgeous.
The new film shows her before the same faculty committee, but now pitching her graduation project, which we’re told is a memorial for Anthony. The committee appreciates that she now has a story based on personal experience, but they are totally befuddled by her script; what the devil is going on? She does not get approval for the project, but is defiant. She assembles a team, mostly other students who are in awe of her, and borrows from her mother to pay the costs.
The general structure of the story is her struggle to complete the film, and the very positive reaction at the premiere at her graduation. But the collateral, and more important story, is Julie’s exploration of her relationship with Anthony, and how it is still having an effect on her, after his death.
In other words, it’s the same theme as in the first film, but only with her memory of the affair as the subject. But again, Hogg chooses to tease us into staying with Julie’s story, only to leave it frustratingly incomplete. And the skill and confidence with which she does this can only confirm that this was intentional.
Subplots are introduced, then dropped, almost whimsically. She visits Anthony’s elderly parents, who welcome her with warmth.They tell her they had been totally unaware of Anthony’s addiction, and seem shocked when Julie says she was never aware of it either. Then, predictably, the probing of Anthony’s life simply stops. The story never gets back to him until the ending, when we see Julie’s completed film, but with Anthony, again played by the brilliant Tom Burke, in an impossible performance by a dead character playing himself.
The early scenes show Julie as nearly lifeless, wan and frumpily dressed. Then, unexpectedly, one of the actors shows up at her apartment, and they quickly fall into sex. But, no, it’s just another tease; he’s only seen in group long shot after that. Still, we see something has stirred in her. Her outfits on the set suggest fashion, even sensuality. Later, Julie boldly hints at a quickie with her editor. But, no, it’s another tease: he’s got a “boyfriend” he’s very worried about. Sweet of you anyway.
So much for relationships. But the largest red herring is hung on Julie’s mother, again played by Tilda Swinton. Julie visits her parents for an extended stay. At dinner talk, Julie is silent as her mother proudly displays an Etruscan teapot she made in crafts class. We can sense an unspoken lifelong hostility between them. Tantalized, we await a dramatic confrontation, the past juicily exposed. The set-up builds after Julie drops the teapot to the floor, breaking it into shards. This is as much of an “accident” as Belmondo shooting the cop in “Breathless”.
But stiffed again. No revelations. At graduation, Julie and mom simply hug each other in shared pride.
By the end, the only theme expressed with real conviction is that cinema is not a substitute for life, it is life. The graduation film makes this almost embarrassingly clear. A ghastly, stylistic mess, Julie has cast herself as a kind of pilgrim discovering the secrets of her memories. Evoking Fellini and Cocteau, among others, but in kaleidoscopic color, we are made to feel captive to this hallucinogenic spectacle, wherever it leads us. This is entertainment bred of a truly cynical perspective.
I get the sense that Hogg is only beginning. Part II still takes place in the late eighties, and the young, fascinating Swinton-Byrne has a long career ahead. Critics are already noting parallels to the filmmaker’s life, especially that she’s been a close friend of Tilda Swinton for decades, and has now cast Swinton’s own daughter as stand-in for herself, with Swinton playing her mother. A Freudian gift for the ages!