While writer-director Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir Part II picks up in the immediate wake of the first film’s emotionally devastating conclusion, the second panel of her diptych quickly goes its own way. Hogg takes her protagonist and on-screen avatar, Julie, a young film student soulfully embodied by Honor Swinton Byrne, through a journey marked by an increased emphasis on self-exploration. By their own telling, though, this synergy of personas exhibited in the film comes about rather paradoxically as Julie evolves into a mirror image of Hogg by reflecting the unique qualities of Swinton Byrne.
As if the line between narrative and reality weren’t blurred enough in this auto-fictional tale, The Souvenir Part II folds in on itself more so than the first film. Julie finds the fallout from her whirlwind relationship with Tom Burke’s Anthony inseparable from the process of directing her graduation film, which is based the events she recently lived. As the character learns how to articulate these feelings and sensations to her collaborators, she begins to arrive at a sense of perspective and wisdom through the application of emotional and aesthetic rigor. Or, in other words, Julie develops the same features that now define Hogg’s own work.
Shortly after the film played at the New York Film Festival, I spoke with Hogg and Swinton Byrne about their close collaboration and how the alter ego of Julie helped them reach a new understanding of their own artistry. Our conversation covered what changed between production of the film’s two parts in terms of the casting, the character, and themselves.
The line for me that really “unlocked” the film was Julie’s mom telling her about how she processed Anthony’s death from the first film: “I felt through you.” To me, this is The Souvenir in microcosm, humanity’s need for proxies in art or each other to understand our emotions. For either or both of you, how has this project affected the way you understand your relationship to the very nature of feeling?
Joanna Hogg: I’m not sure I know yet. Making a project [such as this] is a very intense process, to say the least. So many feelings and emotions went into the making of it. It’s such an intense process that I have to discard it after I make a work like this, and then life is happening all along. Because it’s so much about life and making work, it’s very hard to distinguish. I’ve had some personal things happen in my life since the making of these two films, which I’m very much still processing. There’s no easy answer to that.
I won’t spoil the genius of the final shot for those who’ve yet to experience it, but The Souvenir Part II ends on a note of finality for both filmmaker and character on screen. Do you feel a sense of closure from the journey of making these films, or do you still feel as if you’re probing, exploring, and learning more about it?
Honor Swinton Byrne: I love the final shot because, for me, it really is about coming out of a fantasy. That last moment is actually coming out of this fantasy of romanticizing things, feeling like she depends on someone else, and not quite understanding the reality of where she’s at or where she’s going. It’s a beautiful thing because it pops the bubble at the end. That ties into when her friend says, “Is there a man joining us later?” And she says, “No, I’m just happy by myself.” It’s beautiful, but that goes without saying for Joanna’s wise words.
JH: I don’t think I’ve really come out of the bubble yet because it’s so much about a way of working and being. I haven’t really snapped out of anything, and I’ve just continued working and living my life in a way. Particularly with this piece of work, it’s so hard to step back from them and separate myself. Yet at the same time, it’s such an intense experience. I have to shed it, like shedding a skin. I’m not really analyzing too much, really, about it all.
Joanna, you said at the film’s New York Film Festival premiere that you were glad that you didn’t shoot both parts of this film back to back because there were things that you learned in that gap between productions. What changed for you?
JH: There were two periods of time working on part two in terms of the writing and the conceiving of it. I wrote part one and part two together with intention of shooting both together. Then, I came back to the writing again, but I made the decision not to look back at what I’d written at the time of writing part one. I would just move forward with new ideas, and I still actually haven’t looked back at that original document. Maybe not that much changed, but I have the benefit of hindsight, obviously, and the benefit of seeing Honor and Tom [Burke] working. Particularly with Honor, who was going through to the second film, I was able to observe her and think about her as Honor but also as Julie and make decisions in terms of that journey and what would happen when. Leaving aside my own personal experience, actually, because I really took part two on another journey away from myself in a sense. I experienced a desire in Honor. I saw Honor feeling very imprisoned in a way by the shape of Julie. She’s such an introverted person, in a way that Honor isn’t. I saw Honor really wanting to burst out of this character—or, rather, burst out of a way of being that Julie has—into something more. To expand. That idea of expanding Julie and the story came a lot from Honor, actually.
Honor, how did you go about achieving that expansion?
HSB: My lord, Joanna just made it so damn easy for me to be completely myself while experimenting or even having a nostalgia for being [someone else]. I used to be like Julie when I was a bit younger, and so it was actually quite organic in a strange way to go back into the introversion and the self-questioning. It really was like having an alter ego. So much changed over those two years. I grew up so much between the two-year gap between the two films, and it’s magic that the second one begins two days after the first one ends because there’s such a change there. In those two days, those two years for me, so much had snapped and broken and grown. That was just such a fantastic experience. It was really interesting to me to become more Honor in the second one. And I hope that did follow the natural progression of things. It just went a course, and I think it worked quite well. It was like an evolution.
I remember being so bummed out hearing the news that Robert Pattinson had to drop out of playing Julie’s love interest in this installment, but I’m so intrigued by the way you responded by splitting his character into two. There’s something really fascinating about the different ways that Julie responds to the brashness of Charlie Heaton’s Jim and the tenderness of Harris Dickinson’s Pete. How did you all find this decision to divide the character in two shaped your understanding of Julie?
JH: My description of splitting the character into two, as you play it back to me, seems very straightforward. Of course, it’s never quite as straightforward. You meet an actor—in the case of Robert, I met him a number of times—you have a conversation, and you have an expectation or excitement of what will happen with the role in their hands. It’s not an easy switch anyway from one approach to another. But there’s always disappointments with casting along the way. With most projects, there’s someone who can’t make it because of their schedule or for whatever reason. So, you have to, as a filmmaker, constantly keep things moving and fluid. You can’t get too stuck on something because it can change in an instant.
That process of rethinking the character, I can’t remember how that came about exactly. It didn’t even, in the end, have to do with casting as much as just thinking, “Well, Julie has these different experiences in her life in part two. She doesn’t fix on one guy, or there isn’t one romance.” It made sense to me, regardless of the casting, for Julie to be going on a journey and having disappointments and hopes. And then, the important thing is that she’s independent, able to stand on her own two feet, not as formed in a relationship with a man. I always knew I wanted to get to that point with Julie that she didn’t need to be in a relationship, that she was happy and in love with life. That felt like a really important thing to say.
HSB: Again, it goes back to alter egos. It’s really interesting how this one character became two—and became a bit of a monster and a bit of angel. There are two halves of him. It’s so relatable to me as a young person going through the experience of life, you have these one-night stands and interactions with other people who are on different journeys and going at different speeds. It’s really interesting to come back to yourself [after that]. I don’t know why this image came to me, but it’s like you’re paddling your own canoe and brush up against someone that’s on their own journey. And then you just paddle off to do your own thing.
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