Grief in Relief
This article appeared in the October 28 edition of The Film Comment Letter, our free weekly newsletter featuring original film criticism and writing. Sign up for the Letter here.
The Souvenir Part II (Joanna Hogg, 2021)
My first unresolved question about The Souvenir, that I hoped might be answered in its sequel, concerned a far-leftist terrorist plot: was the mysterious Anthony (Tom Burke) involved in anti-Thatcher political activities resembling tactics of the Provisional IRA, which bombed a Harrods department store in 1983? Hadn’t 25-year-old Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne) glanced out the window of her apartment at one point, holding the curtain open, to see a building in flames? Did I misremember?
If director Joanna Hogg were indeed pointing, however indirectly, to the presence of such subversion, it would recall earlier sentiments. Her own 1986 graduating student film, Caprice, condemns the titular fashion-and-beauty industry magazine for its morally corrosive effects on Lucky—played by a bespectacled “Matilda” Swinton, the mother-to-be of Honor—as she seeks personhood in a pastel noir dream-sequence straight out of Lady in the Dark, the Kurt Weill–Moss Hart–Ira Gershwin Broadway musical smash directed for the screen in 1944 by Mitchell Leisen. “Do you really not remember, or do you not want to?” a psychoanalyst asks Lady’s troubled protagonist, Allure editor Liza Elliott (a sullen Ginger Rogers at the peak of her career), when she can’t remember the source of a lyric refrain that’s been haunting her throat. Back at the office, Liza’s co-worker ridicules her appointment: “Did you see the Wizard of Oz?”
Jokes aside, Liza has been doing real memory-work with this analyst, lying on an oversized egg-blue chaise to tell her dreams out loud. These dreams, bracketed by complete music scores of their own, take up space in the larger narrative as three “spectacle interludes.” The “spectacle interlude” of the classical musical is a fantasy sequence starring the protagonist as a “superior” version of herself, meant to momentarily halt the forward movement of the plot. These spectacles often foreground (as was the case in Singin’ in the Rain’s digressive showcase for Cyd Charisse) modern dance and celebrations of the body and voice. They typically include theatrical iconography: stages upon stages, curtains rising, invocations of Greek mythology, choreographed choruses, maximalist and painterly set-dressing, and shifting costumes that elevate the film’s secondary cast to new tiers of relevance. The spectacle interlude serves as a powerful reverie for both star and spectator—film theorist Patricia Mellencamp states that spectacles “can be considered as excessively pleasurable moments in musicals, awakening the spectator to the fact of filmic illusion”—recalling the potency of dreams for triggering repressed memories in analysis. Lady in the Dark, for its part, literalizes this, making Liza’s going-to-therapy its central concern. In her first dream, Liza finds herself elevated, center-frame, swirling into a hovering, glistening, lavender-blue dress of feminine forgetting. A very 1980s replica of the moment appears in Caprice: Swinton’s astonished Lucky, post-makeover, twirls herself into yellow and lavender silk. It’s a vivid echoing that anchors Lady’s Hollywood musical as a definite Hogg ur-text, and as a structure of significance for the memory play that is The Souvenir Part II.
The film opens soon after Anthony’s death, with Julie placing one memory against another (helped along by a new therapist), one fact newly gleaned about Anthony next to one feeling. If only the puzzling of fact and feeling after an immersive relationship—particularly one in which love co-existed with errant betrayal—would give reality back to itself. While Julie had to wait in the car near a certain drug-structure in The Souvenir, in the sequel, she merely has to open the door. Her relationship-processing here has a psychedelic tint, scored by a masterful Catherine Ribeiro tune from the 1972 album Paix. Whether Anthony was a political radical or actually “just a junkie,” as Julie’s foil Patrick (the piercing Richard Ayoade) tells her, my eyes perceived the possibility of the former, just as they Kuleshov-created Julie’s enviable, understated apartment out of a series of built rooms: architecture made in the mind. One could draw a straight line from Caprice’s combination of flowing, candy-colored, Isadora Duncan fabric draped on models sulking into a pool of water; trompe l’oeil set-pieces reminiscent of Picasso’s stage flats for Erik Satie’s 1917 ballet, Parade; and theatrical, Ulrike Ottinger–esque costumes to the soundless, mythic calculus of Julie-the-filmmaker in The Souvenir Part II—to Julie’s mind after Anthony. “The distinction between inner and outer worlds was becoming permeable and supple, like a fabric, which is in its very technical constitution both structure and surface,” writes poet Lisa Robertson of her early-twenties interiority in her “feminist ars poetica,” The Baudelaire Fractal. It also brings to my mind Liza’s analyst in Leisen’s film, pushing the lady still in the dark: “Did it ever occur to you that you dreamed yourself as the opposite of who you are in reality?”
Julie is finishing film school, becoming a director. She wrestles with casting for her graduate film, going with her instinct to give the lead to her French producer (Ariane Labed) instead of helping an unemployed actress girlfriend. She sets out to recreate her love story with Anthony—a nod, of course, to what Hogg herself has done—and arranges the actors on a soundstage-copy of her white-walled flat in a claustrophobic, interiorized way that confuses the cameraperson and everyone else. If her trusted faculty of white male film professionals doubted her British New Wave inclinations in The Souvenir (in which she wanted to make a movie about a working-class family in Sunderland), they are certainly not on board for a fuzzy new project about her own romantic life with a heroin addict who has caused her tremendous suffering. If documentary allows, paradoxically, for real things to “lose their reality,” as Scottish filmmaker Margaret Tait once wrote, couldn’t a fictionalized version of Julie’s memory of her experience curve closer to the truth?
Swinton Byrne’s composure holds the twofold duties of mourning and working: she comes across as both open-minded and visionary, seeming to suggest that Julie wholly believes that her project will reveal a more robust objectivity. But it’s hard to watch her distance herself from her grief in order to aestheticize it. Or is she aestheticizing in order to distance herself from her grief? I return to Robertson, my artist-portraiture expert. It was a late afternoon in the autumn of 1985, and the poet was “nourishing” a beer on Rue Saint-Jacques in Paris: “Painting, fashion, reading, dalliance: observing, and describing the surfaces of appearing, was giving me information about my mind and its desire.” Julie is, after all, intentionally readable as a version of director Joanna Hogg at film school in her mid-twenties: they are both different shots of the moon. And Swinton Byrne, only two films old, is also at this intuitive age of observation. Each of the three (Julie, Hogg, and Swinton Byrne) is figuring out what kind of artist she’ll be (or was), what materials she’ll use, and when.
Soon enough, Julie presents her own “spectacle interlude,” which draws on Caprice, to her fellow graduates as her final thesis film. (Every spectacle bound in narrative needs a fictive audience, says Mellencamp, a presence of collective looking to help center the star.) Everyone appears in this interlude fantasy, just like in Dorothy’s Technicolor dream of Oz. Anthony resembles a statuesque column of mythic male form; Swinton, as Julie’s mother, offers a deranged hand mirror (a visual trick that invokes Chantal Akerman’s influence on Hogg—the mother is another route to self); and Julie moves through the fantasy-space intermittently like and unlike herself. As her costumes and sets shift from mood to mood, she seems to fall into her own favor. Contradicting the musical trope that would require her to be a starring presence, she is instead a self constituted by her relationships, no longer suffering for them.
As an audience, we’re transported upon the realization that we are elsewhere—it’s not likely that we are watching Julie’s actual final project. This displacement (from the reality to which we’ve grown accustomed to one set apart, as if we too are dreaming) seems to suggest less that Julie’s grieving of Anthony is “over” and more that her mind is another story: she has been attending, over the course of The Souvenir Part II, to the outside world and its Robertson-like “surfaces of appearing,” including her own. It’s also possible that her original grief-project didn’t make it through the edit. We could be watching this “spectacle interlude,” and “they,” the diegetic audience, could be watching… anything. Suddenly, and brilliantly, Hogg has woven together these three interlocking strands of self, which correlate to the tenses of time: her past life as a young artist; this renewed, present, visible version of it; and—here’s also a belief in Swinton Byrne as an autonomous, lucid performer in her own right—Julie’s artistic vision.
To put it another way: our actual Oz, Joanna Hogg, has cornered the viewer and set a jewel-box in her mid-distance vision, like it’s a trinket to remember her by. Not to question reality, but to trust interior life. Still, should you be the type of viewer who is sutured to the story—you don’t generally pick apart the lily, you desire no privileged knowledge about the workings in the wings, you subscribe to the magazine Images of Narrative Closure, not Dreamworks—then no gauzy blue-and-ultraviolet dream-piece would prepare you for the final, self-reflexive mise-en-abyme of the film. But the painted signs are there.
Corina Copp is the author of the poetry collection, The Green Ray, and the North American translator of Chantal Akerman’s My Mother Laughs. She lives in Los Angeles, where she is pursuing a doctorate at the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts.