It's rare that a sequel is not only superior to the original work, but builds on its predecessor in a way that's both mature and necessary. Joanna Hogg's excellent 2019 film 'The Souvenir', a semi-autobiographical reflection on Hogg's troubled relationship with an older man when she was in her 20s, is the kind of self-contained confessional that hardly seems like it would need a sequel. While critically adored, the film drew polarising reactions from general audiences, with many expressing a frustration over the elliptical, opaque nature of Hogg's filmmaking, and an inability to invest in a story that kept them at an arm's length. Perhaps that was the whole point; even in its very existence, 'The Souvenir: Part II' suggests that Hogg's stand-in, Julie (Honor Swinton-Byrne) wasn't ready to lay it all out there in the first instalment, mainly because she didn't understand the doomed relationship herself. Simply put, 'The Souvenir' was the pre-reading, while 'Part II' is where the real magic of this story lies; a portrait of a young woman desperate for answers but unable to get them from anyone but herself. It's staggering that it even exists, let alone that it's this good.
'The Souvenir: Part II' begins days after the tragic events of the first film. While working through her convalescence at her parents' home (Tilda Swinton, 'The French Dispatch', and James Spencer Ashworth, 'The Souvenir'), Julie begins an unofficial investigation into her addict boyfriend Anthony's (Tom Burke, 'Mank') final hours before his passing. In doing so, everything Julie thought she knew about Anthony and her relationship is thrown into disarray, leading her to completely rework her film school graduation project into... an autobiographical re-telling of a 20-something film student in a troubled relationship with an older man. This is not a sequel, but rather a behind-the-scenes of Julie remaking 'The Souvenir', a metatextual tour de force that miraculously never loses itself in its tail-eating.
For many directors, reckoning with the past and memory in the way 'The Souvenir' does would be enough introspection to make a great, one-part film. However, not every director is Joanna Hogg. The devastating penultimate shot of the first film sees Julie break the fourth wall, her expression indicating that her coming of age is only just beginning. It is abundantly clear that this version of the story is the one she always wanted to tell, but of course that would be impossible without detailing the events that led her there in the first place. Hogg has said she fully intended on shooting both films simultaneously, and that scenes from 'Part II' would ultimately inform how elements of 'The Souvenir' were shot. Unfortunately, due to budget constraints, this was not able to happen, but one would never guess it from the final product; 'The Souvenir: Part II' seamlessly addresses, re-contextualises and justifies the first film in a way that very few sequels do. For all its meta commentary, 'The Souvenir: Part II' has more in common with 'The Matrix Resurrections' than it does any romance film.
Not only does 'The Souvenir: Part II' see Julie step out from the shadow of a charismatic manipulator, it also gives Swinton Byrne a chance to deliver a performance that is both discombobulated and revelatory. Though they are far less episodic than one might imagine, many of the film's best scenes are Julie's brief run-ins with people in her orbit who help turn over previously undiscovered steps in her growth. The most memorable of these are with the actor playing Anthony in her film (Harris Dickinson, 'The King's Man') and the film's editor (Joe Alwyn, 'Mary Queen of Scots'), both of whom question Julie's filmmaking process and suggest that this construction of her time with Anthony may be more about the idea of him than the truth.
It's staggering that 'The Souvenir: Part II' even exists, let alone that it's this good.
While some may argue that it shouldn't take a sequel for 'The Souvenir' to be considered a great film in its own right, it does provide justification for its "flaws" and proves that not a single element in either film is unintentional. Suddenly, the impenetrable, inert nature of the previous instalment makes complete sense; we are simultaneously watching a grieving Julie desperately try to make sense of a situation she never truly understood or controlled, and an older Hogg interrogating the art of autobiography in the process. The artificiality of the sets we see in the first film turn out to actually be film sets in the first place. If the first film feels directionless, it's because Julie has been advised by fellow film director and Anthony's friend Patrick (absolute scene-stealer Richard Ayoade, 'Soul') to memorialise the relationship. All of this is further reflected in the troubled production of her film, with many moments on set acting as a chance for Julie to do over parts of the relationship (and pissing off her classmates in the process). Thankfully, 'The Souvenir: Part II' also interrogates Julie's extremely privileged background. Not every film student can casually ask their parents for AU$20,000 at the drop of a hat, and admittedly the first film makes it hard to invest in Julie's journey as a fledgling filmmaker when her initial grad project - an insight into poverty-stricken England - feels so removed from her own experience. Julie's professors expressing disdain for her new film idea despite previously advising her to go more personal is played just as ironically as you would expect.
If the craftsmanship of the film's commentary wasn't enough, Hogg takes 'The Souvenir: Part II' to new heights with bold cinematography, blending predominantly 16mm and digital film to make Julie's story leap off the screen. What she and cinematographer David Raedeker ('The Souvenir') capture in each frame is just as impressive; when Julie sits down at the premiere screening of her film, we get an abstract interpretation of 2019's 'The Souvenir' that's both visually stunning and emotionally affecting. It's such a feat that the film boasts so many shots that could work as a perfect final shot, all stacked one after the other, without ever feeling like it's unnecessarily dragging on. When the final shot does show itself, it's a complete knockout; a physical and metaphorical burying of this time in Hogg's life that left me gobsmacked.
Not only is 'The Souvenir: Part II' superior to its already-impressive predecessor, it's also one of the best films 2022 has to offer thus far, and I'm sure that it will reveal even more on repeat viewings, just as the original 'Souvenir' does. If you can, seek out a double feature of both films to appreciate just how meticulously and masterfully Hogg has deconstructed what it means to be an artist, and reconstructed her past into something truly memorable.