“The Souvenir Part II” opens with an ethereal humming and a couple close-ups of blooming flowers. They are in lieu of a traditional establishing shot (nothing much in this film is “traditional”), and their spring buoyancy makes the next scene all the more glum.
Writer-director Joanna Hogg cuts directly to a still shot of a stairway filled with the sound of Rosalind’s (Tilda Swinton) steps and the clinks from the dishes she’s bringing to her mourning daughter Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne). Julie is concerned; her period is late. Rosalind can empathize with that, but — and this is the tension Swinton plays so well — she’s operating between her maternal love and her inability to comprehend her daughter’s life.
“Part II” picks up where its predecessor, “The Souvenir,” ended. Julie’s father, William (James Spencer Ashworth), asks if she knew what was going on with Anthony (Tom Burke), her boyfriend, who may or may not have worked for Britain’s Foreign Office. Nobody is quite sure — there aren’t any traces to go on. He overdosed at the end of the first movie and the sequel finds a therapist telling Julie that he lost the will to live.
Hogg’s filmmaking is tuned to the mutability of moods. Late in the film, she quickly cuts to Julie crying at the fall of the Berlin Wall, then away to Julie’s 30th birthday. The immediacy of her film can feel jarring. They elide the moments in between events, such as when we would bend down to tie a shoelace. In both “Souvenir” films, she’s perfectly happy to cut out a couple weeks or months altogether. If they serve no purpose, they don’t stick.
Over the course of “Part II,” we watch the moments of Julie’s recovery. Between processing Anthony’s death, Julie visits her parents’ home, where she gets the money to plug up the holes in the budget of her graduate film. And at film school, she occasionally finds a fleeting love interest. (The film she is making is, in a way, “The Souvenir.”)
None of these moments are very straightforward to a viewer who is not Julie. She tells her professors that she wants to make a film the way she sees life. They’re all men, and all very skeptical. Toward the end, Hogg doesn’t close the door on the possibility none of them understand Julie’s final product — a very artsy, very avant-garde, very film school final product.
Hogg might be the first to tell you Julie’s film is frantic and distracted. Yet, it’s also an understated addition to “Part II.” It’s a terrible wonderland of excessive references to theory and gazes, aggressively overt symbolism and allusions; but also a construction of Julie’s person. It would be an even better digression if the rest of “Part II” were capable of keeping up with Julie’s identity.
As it stands, Hogg’s sequel suffers from a vague lead. The scenes before Julie shows her film, for example, are pantomimically neat. It’s possibly the most artistic take on a cliched happy ending, which doesn’t end up as an ending. The film’s real ending is far more inventive, but for a reason unrelated to its main character. Julie’s aspirations end up sucking her into a sort of character obscurity where the film’s meta-inspirations dominate her personality.
None of that is to say Swinton Byrne’s work is without its boons. Her performance is slippery, closed off from the viewer. Hogg doesn’t seem antithetical to that style of acting — if anything it makes a welcome companion to her film’s insistence on seeing the world as Julie does.
Perhaps Hogg trusted Swinton Byrne to support the character. Swinton Byrne, however, doesn’t find a way to make us latch on, and when it falls to her to propel Julie’s personality, “Part II” flails about. There’s nothing to hold onto, no door to invite us into. In the end, it’s ultimately Hogg’s visual style that coheres “Part II” and keeps us looking.