Self, Invention: Honor Swinton Byrne and Joanna Hogg on the Carefully Drawn World of The Souvenir Part II

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Honor Swinton Byrne as Julie in The Souvenir Part II, now playing in theaters. Photo: Josh Barrett

Fans of 2019’s critically acclaimed The Souvenir can now return to director Joanna Hogg’s keenly observed and precisely drawn world of 1980s England with The Souvenir Part II. Envisioned as a pair of films from the start, the diptych’s scant plotting belies its minute shifts in tone and pure emotional power. In the first film, Julie, a young film student, is swept up in a romance with a charismatic if slippery older man, Anthony; part two traces the fallout from that relationship as she tries to fill the void he leaves and find her creative voice.

It’s a tender tale—much of it drawn from Hogg’s own life—about the surprising and at times confounding incidents of youth that haunt us for the remainder of our lives; the efforts to unravel those mysteries and spin them into art; and the bewildering process of creation, including the invention of our adult selves. 

Part II is a love letter to cinema and a testament to its restorative powers, and asking Hogg about her inspirations is like tugging at a lengthy daisy chain of hyper-stylized references: The Red Shoes, 8 1/2, Hitchcock’s Suspicion, golden-era musicals like Cover Girl and Lady in the Dark but also darker, more recent musicals like All That Jazz and New York, New York (directed by Hogg’s mentor, Martin Scorsese, who also executive produced both Souvenir films). 

“It was a decision I made with both parts to watch and think about the films that I loved when I was making my graduation film, because I wanted the influences to be the same,” Hogg tells me via Zoom from New York, where Part II screened at the New York Film Festival. “I was conjuring up my world as an early-20-something again.” Both films are mostly colored in the washed-out palette of an especially dreary England, but toward the end of Part II, the film leaps head-first into the unconscious; transforming for a few brief moments into a Technicolor fever dream of sublimated emotions—a looking-glass version of Julie’s life up to that point that leaves you agog. That film-within-a-film was inspired by Hogg’s own student work, starring a then-unknown actor: Hogg’s childhood friend Tilda Swinton.

For the role of Julie, Hogg cast Honor Swinton Byrne, Swinton’s daughter, in her first major acting job, mere weeks before the first film began production. With no formal acting training, the then-19-year-old marinated in Hogg’s film references, as well as in artworks (Fragonard’s The Souvenir, of course, the films’ namesake), books, photographs, even Hogg’s diaries and therapist’s notes. Not to mention the film’s soundtrack—everything from Erasure, Mick Ronson, and the Eurythmics to Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle—which Hogg says has a “madeleine-like quality of transporting one back to a particular moment in time.”

Jaygann Ayeh, Ariane Labed, and Charlie Heaton as Julie’s classmates at film school in The Souvenir Part II.Josh Barrett

Swinton Byrne, now 24, didn’t find the period setting much of a stretch. “I feel like I grew up in the ’80s,” she says, speaking from Edinburgh. “I grew up listening to that music, watching those films, hearing about the period from my mum, and feeling quite connected to that time. I loved living in that time [on set], with the music and clothes.”

Her wardrobe included pieces from that period, surfaced from the director’s closet as well as her mother’s, and they tell a story of their own across the two parts. “In the first film, when Julie’s with Anthony, I wore a lot of corsets, a lot of cardigans, very restrictive things that sucked me in. Then with the second film, it was really chic, very relaxed, comfortable, elegant, a bit more masculine and edgy,” Swinton Byrne explains. Some silhouettes—a long, dramatic coat in particular—call back to Anthony’s costume from the first film. “I really did feel it made me want to dress cooler as Honor.”

Photo: Josh Barratt / Courtesy of A24

Hogg credits costume designer Grace Snell for “cleverly mirroring what my journey was in terms of clothes,” in the 1980s, citing designers she admired like Yohji Yamamoto and Manolo Blahnik. “I’ve always been very interested in fashion, particularly when I was at film school, and it was something that was not understood by my tutors there,” she continues.

The closed-mindedness of her film school faculty is vividly rendered in one scene in Part II, where a group of professors—all middle-aged white men—refuses to support Julie’s project (also a tale of ill-fated lovers called The Souvenir). “I don’t want to show life as it plays out,” Julie tells them. “I want to show life as I imagine it.” Today, Hogg says carefully, “there’s so much awareness of women making films, and there are these quotas to make sure enough women are selected for projects or in festivals, so there’s a sense that maybe it’s easier now. But it’s a challenge to make films whoever you are, and it’s such a commitment—there are so many sacrifices you have to make. You keep such a focus on your films that other things in your life can go along the wayside.”

Like watching other movies, for example. Hogg glances around her hotel room, where thick curtains block out the city. “Right now I’m sitting here, the New York Film Festival’s going on down the road. I would really like to be sitting in a theater right now.” (Speaking about today’s women directors, she notes that Chloe Zhao’s Nomadland “hit very deep for me,” while Swinton Byrne effuses over Michaela Coel.)

Swinton Byrne and Tilda Swinton (as Julie’s mother, Rosalind).Photo: Sandro Kopp

In the middle of promoting Part II and editing her next film, Hogg hasn’t had time to see Mia Hansen-Løve’s Bergman Island, which is also centered on a struggling woman filmmaker and also eventually veers meta, merging the fantastic with reality in a film within a film. Fortuitously, however, the two filmmakers did happen to meet on holiday in Italy. “We had both just finished our shoots, and of course we didn’t know what the other was doing. But we had this very brief conversation where we realized there was alignment.” Hogg shrugs. “Sometimes there’s just something in the air.”

Swinton Byrne, whom critics are already championing for awards recognition, says her mother didn’t provide any specific acting advice. However, she has gleaned a lot from years of observing Swinton at work. “She is the most sprinkly person I’ve ever met—she has this sparkle I wish I had. I always try to maintain this sense of truth and centeredness that she brings to everything she does, and patience and respect for the entire crew,” she reflects. “I’ve seen her be such a pleasure to work with. I definitely have tried to imitate that.” Swinton plays her buttoned-up mother in the films; both have noted their real-life relationship is much less staid.

Likewise, Swinton Byrne comes off as far more warm and ebullient than the interior Julie, which is certain to take her far in any career she chooses. Despite her lauded film debut, she currently studies psychology at university—but she got a taste of directing for one scene in the new film and would jump at the chance to do it again. “It gave me a real sense of joy to be the captain of a ship,” she says with a grin.

The Souvenir Part II is currently in theaters.

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