Too Good at Goodbyes: The Souvenir Part II and Joanna Hogg’s Cinema of Memory

By Katherine Connell

Joanna Hogg chases authenticity. Her reluctance to call “Cut,” instead letting a scene’s action carry on via languid takes, static camerawork, and unscripted dialogue, reflects her intuitive sense of how small but telling slips within the typically dull cadences of British upper-middle-class social chatter can reveal roiling undercurrents of feeling. Yet while her debut feature, Unrelated (2007), convincingly sold this illusion of casualness, the visual and narrative rigour that underlies it came to the fore as early as her follow-up, Archipelago (2010). At one point in the latter, members of a family taking an off-season vacation are grouped against the severe blankness of a blue-gray wall, where an almost imperceptible differentiation in colour draws our eyes to a phantom square. The characters, who have holidayed in this house frequently over the years, confirm in dialogue that an artwork once hung there, but the image was so “horrible” that they asked to have it removed rather than have to endure it for their stay. At the end of the film, the painting is rehung, revealing this vision of horror: a tempestuous seascape, a seemingly innocuous image that becomes charged within this family’s barely concealed triangulation of resentment. 

Hogg’s early films derive much of their tension from this interplay between presence and absence, or between anticipated realization and ultimate irresolution: conflict curves toward moments of explosion only to recede from them as characters tenuously maintain the codes of behaviour that govern their class milieu. The acute precision with which Hogg renders these scenarios of barely sustained repression and things left almost-said makes it all the more surprising to encounter the unrestrained stylistic excess of her very first work. Made as her thesis film for London’s National Film and Television School, Caprice (1986) is an Alice in Wonderland-style satire of fashion-magazine ideals which drops Tilda Swinton into a fantasy world constructed from candy-coloured mattes that evoke Powell and Pressburger and Hollywood musicals. After graduating from NFTS, Hogg spent nearly two decades working in advertising, music videos, and television, including episodes of soaps like London Bridge, Casualty, and EastEnders. Going independent at the age of 47, she wrote and directed Unrelated, which won the FIPRESCI prize at the London Film Festival and went on to steadily accrue admirers as it bopped around minor festivals in the UK and the US. 

Compared to the baroque artifice of Caprice, the stylistic restraint of Hogg’s feature debut gives it the feeling of having been made by a different person entirely. Unrelated follows Anna (Kathryn Worth), a middle-aged professional woman who has arrived in Tuscany to join her old school friend, Verena (Mary Roscoe), on the latter’s family vacation. Arriving without her partner, Alex, who she says got stuck with work back in London, Anna surprisingly withdraws from Verena and the other adults on the trip—Verena’s new husband Charlie (Michael Hadley), and her cousin George (David Rintoul)—and instead builds a tenuous social alliance with the three grown-ups’ hard-partying teenage children. The most powerful, and potentially combustible, connection she forges within the younger set is with Oakley (Tom Hiddleston, in his first film role), George’s Etonian son, whose indolence and louche manner only partially mask a childlike vulnerability.  

The growing erotic frisson between Anna and Oakley sets the stage for familiar dramatics, but Hogg’s art resides in the manner in which she allows her narratives to develop incrementally, withholding catharsis and building tension via a slow creep that is only one notch speedier than stasis. Even the climactic moment of raw, emotional release—when Anna reveals that her self-imposed alienation stems from her recent misinterpretation of the onset of menopause for pregnancy, a disclosure that takes the form of a torrential outpouring as she sobs and convulses in Verena’s arms—is followed immediately by a return to stillness and (seeming) sameness in the subsequent coda, a preternatural calm that dulls the significance of the preceding revelation. It’s a conclusion that is quintessential of Hogg’s early work as a whole, in which relationships may shift and dynamics can be modified, but rarely is anybody transformed. 

Archipelago revisits the family-holiday scenario with even more tenacious focus. The film begins as Edward (Hiddleston), eldest scion of a well-off clan, arrives in the isles of Scilly for a vacation in the company of his mother, Patricia (Kate Fahey), and sister, Cynthia (Lydia Leonard). Friction crackles from the beginning due to Patricia and Cynthia’s tacit disapproval of Edward’s sudden career pivot from finance to logistically vague AIDS-related charity work in Africa, while Patricia has strained phone conversations with the family’s estranged, unseen patriarch, who has mentioned that he might show up. Irritated by Patricia and Cynthia’s passive aggression, as well as their insistence that he leave his girlfriend out of this family-only retreat, Edward tries to forge a bond with their live-in cook Rose (Amy Lloyd); but even as his amorphous progressive impulses have set him apart from his family, so too does his class position prevent him from truly relating to this one other outsider in the house.

The mounting tension generated by these interpersonal divisions plays out via a severe contrast between outdoor and indoor space, with DP Ed Rutherford’s wide shots of the Scilly archipelago’s windswept vistas—which are reinterpreted in the vibrant expressionist canvases composed by Christopher (played by the landscape painter Christopher Baker), a local artist who is giving Patricia painting lessons—set against the low ceilings, boxy bedrooms, and pallid, blue-grey walls of the rental house. As in Unrelated, Hogg refuses to foreground the emotional apexes of her films: shouted arguments are overheard rather than shown; characters abruptly but dispassionately storm out of rooms; familial stalemates are smoothed over by unspoken acceptance. As trips themselves always come to their inevitable end, so too do both Unrelated and Archipelago conclude with a shrugging return to “normalcy,” their innate lack of resolution hammered home even more by Hogg’s talent for nailing the awkward goodbye. Whereas her characters rarely greet one another effusively, their farewells are imbued with an almost ecstatic sense of relief that evinces itself in the number of times (always more than is necessary) that they excitedly volley the word “Bye” back and forth—a giddy anticipation to be rid of one another that commingles with the sadness of missed connections, as Hogg’s camera lingers on the empty spaces left behind by her vacationers.  

Christopher Baker’s rambling, introspective soliloquies about art in Archipelago signalled what would be a decisive turn in the subject matter of Hogg’s work: while the upper-middle-class milieu remains, all of her subsequent films to date have examined how this moneyed sphere interacts with the interior worlds of artists. Exhibition (2013) casts Slits guitarist Viv Albertine and visual artist Liam Gillick as D and H, married artists whose delicately maintained work/life/coexistence balance is thrown subtly out of whack after they put their house—a Modernist urban fortress designed by Hogg’s friend, the late architect James Melvin, to whom the film is dedicated—up for sale. The couple has lived and worked in this space for most of their adult lives, pursuing their respective practices on separate floors connected via the steel helix of a spiral staircase. While H seems at peace with the impending exodus, D displays a kind of indefinable ennui that appears to prompt some unusual behaviour. Wandering between empty rooms in the night and posing undressed in front of street-facing ribbon windows, D searches for a way to imprint herself upon the space. But even as her quiet acts of exhibitionism invite closeness, the viewer remains cut off from their narrative context—an invisible guest in the house.

In a distinct departure from the subtly heightened quotidianism of Unrelated and Archipelago, Exhibition includes some sequences that verge on magic realism—an echo of Caprice that, in its evocation of Hogg’s artistic genesis, intimates both the backward-looking gaze and formal risk-taking that combine in The Souvenir. Exhibition’s mildly surreal centrepiece scene—a gallery Q&A about D’s work between herself and H, which pictures D as simultaneously an onstage conversant and a member of the audience—creates a moment of diegetic collapse in which Hogg parses the critical reception of her own films. Against the white glare of an empty screen, H speechifies about D’s work, while her unresponsive silence to his suggestions (especially his praise of her Hogg-like ability to “unpack these psychological aspects of the domestic that are quite hard to reach”) suggests that he’s missed the point entirely. 

Where Exhibition has a tantalizing element of the semi-autobiographical in this veiled instance of self-reflexivity, as well as in the film’s pair of married artists themselves (Hogg is married to conceptual artist Nick Turvey), this shift toward the personal becomes all the more pronounced in the Künstlerroman diptych of The Souvenir (2019) and this year’s The Souvenir Part II. As Hogg’s avatar Julie, a film student in ’80s London, the filmmaker cast her godchild Honour Swinton-Byrne, daughter of Hogg’s erstwhile Caprice star Tilda Swinton (who appears in both films as Julie’s mother, Rosalind); Julie’s flat in the film is a reconstructed version of the Knightsbridge apartment that Hogg lived in as a student, and Hogg also incorporates relics from her life during this period, including old Super 8 footage she shot at the time, as well as recreated dialogue and letters that serve as the real-life foundation of Julie’s formative romantic relationship. The object of Julie’s affection is Anthony (Tom Burke), an enigmatic civil servant and heroin addict, whose death by overdose at the conclusion of the first film becomes the seed for the second, in which Hogg creates a veritable nesting doll of autobiographical films within films. Deciding that her graduation film will memorialize her relationship with Anthony, Julie recreates her apartment as a set in the school’s studio, imports personal items to dress it (including her own bed), and casts a fellow filmmaker to play herself.

While any such overtly self-referential endeavour like The Souvenir risks the charge of indulgence, in Hogg’s case it connects with the feminist strategy of asserting an authorial prerogative and identity that is granted almost automatically to male artists: as Hélène Cixous put it, “woman must put herself into the text—as into the world and into history—by her own movement.” This question of self-articulation is posed early on in the first film when Anthony takes Julie to the Wallace Collection to look at a painting by Fragonard, also called The Souvenir (a title which will later be applied to Julie’s graduation film as well), which depicts a woman carving her lover’s initial into the tree—both a commemoration of her love, and an act of writing herself into the world. “She looks sad,” Julie remarks; “She looks determined,” counters Anthony, who, for all his entitled masculine arrogance, nevertheless presents the ambitious but yielding Julie with some valuable reframes of her perspective. 

Continuing to explore her enduring skepticism toward and fascination with patriarchal ego, Hogg applies an equal degree of nuance to The Souvenir’s depictions of Julie’s film professors, even as they prove to be far more of a stumbling block toward her protagonist’s artistic realization. A bank of middle-aged and older white men who are almost interchangeable in appearance, these instructors only reluctantly accept Julie’s initial proposal for her thesis—a social-realist portrait of the Sunderland docks, subject matter far from her life experience—and, in Part II, outright reject her new, autobiographical project by denying her the funding that is allocated for graduate films. While Julie is often underestimated by her professors on the basis of her gender and timid temperament, Hogg cannily shows how her class background enables her to circumvent such institutional barriers, as a £10,000 loan from her mother allows Julie and her producer, Marland (Jaygann Ayeh), to finance the film. 

In Part II, Julie’s foil is Patrick (Richard Ayoade), a vainglorious colleague so single-minded in his artistic vision that he indulges in on-set temper tantrums that escalate to such an extent that he is exiled from his own edit. In stark contrast to Patrick’s monomaniacal assurance, Julie struggles to make decisions on her shoot, not least because her film’s subject is drawn directly from an experience she has yet to fully process. She waffles about camera placement and delivers labyrinthine directions to her leads, raising doubts amongst her crew: the actors gossip; the DP ultimately threatens to quit. Julie’s latent anger toward Anthony especially causes difficulties for Pete (Harris Dickinson), the actor playing him in her film, who attempts to create his character from a position of empathy rather than his director’s reality. Later, when she arrives at the editing stage, Julie realizes that she hadn’t even managed to shoot everything she had wanted to capture of her memories.  

While Patrick serves as Julie’s most pronounced counterpoint, a gentler alternative is provided via her mother Rosalind, who, here as in the first film, provides her daughter with unconditional emotional and financial support. Naturally, Hogg’s depiction of this matrilineal relationship is given immeasurably greater resonance by the fact of its being enacted by a real-life mother and daughter, as well as by the knowledge that the elder Swinton was the artistic enabler of the real-life film that we see Julie struggling to realize. The circularity of all these connections is thrown into even greater relief in Part II’s haunting denouement: the first public screening of Julie’s The Souvenir. Introducing the film with a cryptic dedication to “absent friends,” Julie takes her seat as the ethereal light of the projector begins to dance across the faces of her mother, friends, peers, and professors. Except the film we see on the screen-within-the-screen isn’t Julie’s film, or at least not the one we’ve seen her making: rather, what we witness is Julie interpellated into a set constructed partially out of uncanny replicas from Hogg’s own Caprice. Glimpsing the back of Anthony’s pinstriped jacket, Julie chases him and arrives in a hall of mirrors, through which her cast and family wander—a gallery of reflections in which interlacing identification is punctuated by a moment in which Julie briefly slips on a mask of Anthony’s face, before passing it to Rosalind. A series of glitches turn Julie in the other direction, and she exits the way she came, tearing through a paper matte. 

Bypassing the obvious choice of snapping back to “reality” by revealing the reactions of Julie’s audience, Hogg instead has her protagonist burst through her film and into life, as Julie runs across a grassy field to the pulse of the Eurythmics’ “There Must be an Angel,” whose lyrics (“I walk into an empty room / And suddenly my heart goes boom”) provide a fitting summation for this moment of artistic arrival. Yet once again, as in the pointedly anticlimactic climaxes of Hogg’s earliest features, the moment of catharsis is undercut: the glorious flight of fantasy gives way to a flash-forward in with Julie is directing a music video for a fictional ’80s band (whose frontwoman is played by singer-songwriter Anna Calvi, who provided original songs for both Part II and its predecessor). Now confident in her directorial role, Julie smoothly answers the questions of an interviewer, and even displays a bit of bravado: “I hope I have something to say in my thirties,” she says with a smirk. 

At the end of Les plages d’Agnès (2008), Agnès Varda sits within a version of her installation work Une cabane de cinéma, a luminescent house constructed from 35mm prints of Varda’s films. “I feel like cinema is the house that I live in. It’s like I’ve always lived here,” she ruminates. Hogg’s diptych recalls this simple but powerful concept: not simply comprising a record of how its maker came to be, both films’ reconstructions are an unfurling of self, work, and memory through which one can circulate endlessly. At the end of the first Souvenir, metal studio doors part like a slowly expanding aspect ratio, revealing an overcast landscape that Julie walks toward; the extraordinary final scene of Part II involves a similar structural widening. Celebrating her thirtieth birthday (and, it’s quietly suggested, still a ways off from realizing the artistic ambitions that she boastfully anticipated in the previous scene), Julie drinks, laughs, embraces her friends, and dances in her apartment—a scene of joyful intimacy in a space that, over the course of the two films, we ourselves have also come to inhabit. Then, the camera pulls out through a small wooden panel—the same panel through which Julie unobtrusively shot scenes of her film—to reveal Hogg’s crew. Unlike her characters, who so often waver in their goodbyes, Hogg evinces no hesitation when, after a few moments, she sharply says, “Cut.” 

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