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Honor Swinton Byrne, centre, in a scene from The Souvenir Part 2.levelFILM

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  • The Souvenir: Part II
  • Written and directed by Joanna Hogg
  • Starring Honor Swinton Byrne, Richard Ayoade and Tilda Swinton
  • Classification R; 107 minutes
  • Opens at select theatres, including the TIFF Lightbox in Toronto, on Dec. 3

Critic’s Pick

Sitting up front in a production vehicle with members of her cast and crew after a disastrous day of shooting, a young female director’s cheeks burn with shame as her cinematographer threatens to walk off her set. Ranting from the back seat, he issues a laundry list of her failures: an inability to know if a scene should be lit for day or night, that her emotional attachment makes her unable to give direction, how she’s simply not a leader. Her producer goads him on, saying that if he wants to quit, he should. While a cast member supportively squeezes the young woman’s shoulder, she looks as if she might die on the spot from stress.

As a young Taylor Swift once wrote, it’s a moment I know all too well. In fact, after shooting my first feature in the third wave of the pandemic earlier this year, this agonizingly tense scene from The Souvenir: Part II may have given me PTSD.

For those not familiar with British director Joanna Hogg’s unlikely art-house franchise The Souvenir (I hope to one day live in a world where there are as many of these movies as there are Iron Mans), the first instalment, set in London in the 1980s, followed the coming of age of Julie (Hogg’s muse, Honor Swinton Byrne), an aspiring filmmaker from a well-appointed family in the throes of a tortuous romance with Anthony, a charismatic and manipulative heroin addict (Mank’s Tom Burke).

The Souvenir: Part II is about grief and art, as well as the painful indignity of having to ask your rich parents to fund it.levelFILM

The film’s star, the daughter of acclaimed veteran actor Tilda Swinton – who also plays her mother in these movies – didn’t seem to so much act her role, as survive it. By the end, after Anthony has overdosed and her grades have plummeted, Julie returns to film school completely hollowed out. The final shot is one of the most poignant images I’ve ever seen: Julie in silhouette standing in the industrial doorway of a large film studio, determined to return to the part of herself who wanted to be an artist.

Although Hogg’s roman-à-clef may be one of the most unlikeliest movies ever to warrant a sequel, the second film picks up exactly after the first Souvenir (the French word for memory) left off.

Julie is now in mourning, living at her parents’ lavish country home, who gently offer platitudes like, “What was going on with this chap anyways?” and, “Where has my sweet girl gone?” Julie seeks closure, and sets off early to speak to the people in Anthony’s orbit. This, of course, includes Patrick (an irresistible, platinum-haired Richard Ayoade), the flamboyant filmmaker from the first Souvenir who becomes a mentor of sorts as Julie tries to make a film to remember Anthony by. (“Did you avoid the temptation to be obvious?” chides Patrick later.)

While the second film does see Julie engaging in a brief love scene with Stranger Things’ Charlie Heaton (it’s the sexiest depiction of period sex ever), The Souvenir: Part II is about grief and art, as well as the painful indignity of having to ask your rich parents to fund it.

The second film picks up exactly after the first Souvenir (the French word for memory) left off.levelFILM

Traumatized, but determined, the sequences of Julie on set are Hogg’s most potent and personal, capturing the high stress and performance of directing. Positively dripping in flop sweat, Julie paces around the studio as she overhears her lead actors (Beach Rats’ Harris Dickinson and Yorgos Lanthimos’ muse Ariane Labed) picking her apart. She painfully recreates scenes of herself and Anthony in intimate poses and costumes familiar from the first film, but doesn’t know how to make these moments feel real. She fishes praise from her handsome editor (a brilliantly cast Joe Alywn), who tries his best to assure that her film will work.

Hogg captures something I’ve felt acutely as a female filmmaker: a desperate need for everyone to like you, which eliminates any possibility of their respect. Which makes Julie’s ultimate film-within-a-film all the more triumphant: a surreal 15-minute musical fantasia in the tradition of The Red Shoes that unearths Anthony’s spectral presence and sets the young artist free.

There’s another wallop of a final image in The Souvenir: Part II: Hogg and her crew in a studio, as it’s revealed that the cheerful birthday party Julie is having in her flat is actually on a soundstage. There are so few movies that depict female filmmakers, and rarely still, show them poised in indecision as the world closes in on them. You feel like everyone is silently cursing your existence for needing another take, but they probably just want to go on lunch. Every time I see Julie hugging the walls, finding the courage to stammer out “Action,” I see a woman on the path toward greatness.

In the interest of consistency across all critics’ reviews, The Globe has eliminated its star-rating system in film and theatre to align with coverage of music, books, visual arts and dance. Instead, works of excellence will be noted with a Critic’s Pick designation across all coverage.