The beauty of slow cinema rests in Joanna Hogg’s autobiographical Souvenir series. Methodically moving along from moment to moment, The Souvenir Part II continues directly from where the first film left off. For anyone approaching Part II without seeing Part I, you’ll mostly understand what’s happening but won’t remotely get the same impact. You’re not going to comprehend the significance of Julie’s film or who Anthony (Tom Burke) was beyond being Julie’s dead boyfriend. Meant to be seen as a companion piece, The Souvenir Part II is a contained series dramatizing the director’s life.
Right after the death of her first love, Julie is expected by everyone to move on. Aside from her parents, Julie’s peers and teachers test her patience. Julie’s student film set is blistering with tension. For those that have worked on their share of sets, it’s not too far from an accurate depiction of the typical day at work. As much as we’d like to pretend that making movies is fun, it can be a soul-crushing process. Anyone who’s directed a film can relate to Julie’s creative decisions being questioned by everyone around her as if she were some fool.
No interactions between characters in The Souvenir series feels manufactured. Everything is handled with a bit of that polite British sincerity you’d expect. That is until someone abruptly swears at someone else. In polite society, we avoid conflict, biting our tongue when we want to lash out. The mental abuse Julie takes is undoubtedly more than the ordinary person can handle. In a feat of cinematic rarity, a passive protagonist is alluring.
Julie’s strength lies in her collectiveness. Where others would rush to anger; Julie bottles in her emotions. Honor Swinton Byrne does a remarkable job playing Julie. We can tell by looking at her; there’s something on her mind. Julie’s mood is far from transparent. Everyone can see past her smile, some care, giving her the space she needs, others don’t. Every frame in the film is shot with intention. Not a single over-the-shoulder setup is present. Mirroring how Julie makes a film on her life, the movie plays like a documentary if Yasujirō Ozu shot it. The camera stays wide, letting the room act as a character. That room is the trap life puts us in. Most of the interior environments corner the frame in a cubical manner resembling a box.
The Souvenir Part II is meta without being pretentious. There’s a measure of empathy taken to Julie’s story that avoids condescending sentimentality. The camera work doesn’t call attention to itself, nor is there a rising score to inform the audience. The Souvenir Part II emulates life to the best of its ability as a dramatic work can. There are actors playing roles. We all know that’s Tilda Swinton, but we buy her as Julie’s mom in the film. The only time theatrics come into play is at the end, which honestly is a little pretentious but rightfully so. It’s a tragic visual metaphor for the happiness most of us can only stage but never find. Being autobiographical is okay. Because as dull as life is, it’s fascinating all at the same time.
The cinema is made to have humans connect through a shared feeling emulated by a filmmaker’s mind. For all our cruelty, there’s also a frailty to us that’s universal, which is why you can have someone tell their life story. Movies of this level of compassion come only once a year, and here’s one of them.