In the Routledge Handbook of Philosophy of Empathy, Jane Stadler describes cinematic empathy as an “emotional process that occurs when audience members perceive, imagine, or hear about a film character’s affective and mental state and, in so doing, vicariously experience a shared or congruent state.” Some audience members will bristle at the idea of Joanna Hogg as a filmmaker provoking empathy because her characters are so privileged. And yet in The Souvenir Part 2, not only has she created a beautiful piece of autofiction, she also presents both making and engaging with cinema as possessing the power to transport, transform, provoke, question and heal.
Filmmaking and Feeling in The Souvenir Part 2
“What does it make you FEEL?!” bellows Richard Ayoade’s Patrick in one of the most memorable scenes in The Souvenir Part 2. Observing the edit of his student film, a black and white musical spectacular, Patrick is frustrated by his fellow students’ lacklustre comments. The scene is amusing thanks to his stroppiness, but the question lingers. What connection does this film make between filmmaking and feeling?
"familial strife against dishwater-grey skies"
The Souvenir Part 1, the meditative and moving first chapter in the story of upper-middle-class film student Julie (Honor Swinton-Byrne, daughter of Tilda), explored her relationship with the narcissistic, troubled Anthony. In Part 2, Julie is weathering the storm of Anthony’s sudden death from a heroin overdose, quietly traversing an uncharted path through the dark, tangled woods of grief. At Patrick’s advice, she resolves to transform her student film into a memorial for Anthony.
Before Anthony’s death, Julie’s first idea for her film is worlds away from her upbringing: a drama about working class life in Sunderland that’s firmly within the British tradition of social realism. The Souvenir films themselves represent a kind of alternative social realism with Hogg using long takes and naturalistic dialogue to tell loosely-plotted stories of familial strife against dishwater-grey skies. Stylistically and thematically her work is reminiscent of directors like Mike Leigh and Ken Loach, both renowned for focusing on the socio-political conditions of the working class. Unlike those filmmakers however, Hogg focuses exclusively on the middle-class milieu with which she is familiar. And, to the chagrin of some critics, her privileged characters are not Knightsbridge nightmares, just deeply flawed and profoundly human.
"her privileged characters are not Knightsbridge nightmares, just deeply flawed and profoundly human"
Abandoning Sunderland and social realism for an elegy to her doomed relationship with Anthony, we see Julie recreate her flat on a soundstage, an actor swaggering in Anthony’s ostentatious army-style coat that he wore as a dressing gown, and a fellow film student roped in to play Julie’s surrogate. Her film school teachers are even more baffled by this change than they were by her original pitch, refusing to approve her project and provide the necessary funding. Julie’s poor parents are asked to cough up another £10,000 and things go from bad to worse as the shoot begins.
There is no romanticism here of a gifted filmmaker coming in to her own. Julie’s poor planning begins to grate on her crew, eventually boiling over into an argument with a rightfully disgruntled cinematographer fed up with last minute changes and working without a shot list. She struggles to communicate with her actors, who question the behaviour of the fictional counterparts of herself and Anthony, and virtually everything seems to be going wrong. Here is perhaps a vision of film school by way of social realism with uncomfortable silences and repressed frustration with someone who uses her parents’ money to solve any problem.
"uncomfortable silences and repressed frustration with someone who uses her parents’ money to solve any problem"
But Hogg isn’t only interested in social realism. The Souvenir Part 1 ended with a grief-stricken Julie looking directly at the camera as we hear an actor recite Christina Rossetti’s poem “When I am dead, my dearest”. Julie’s wounded, fourth wall-shattering stare recalls Tilda Swinton’s looks to camera in Orlando (1992), as if a cinematic lineage between the two films is being drawn.
When Julie finally screens her completed film what we see is not Julie’s film at all. Instead, a phantasmagoria of opulent tragedy unfolds, beginning with Julie dwarfed by an enormous, looming projection of Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s painting The Souvenir, which Anthony introduced to her in Part 1. She’s suddenly lifted off the ground and floats through the painting, entering an ethereal space that looks like an ancient mausoleum where she finds Anthony’s body wrapped in a shroud. His cries of pain from heroin withdrawal echo like the howls of a tortured phantom.
This film-within-a-film seems to be an extraordinary stylistic departure for Hogg, but it's actually partly an homage to her own graduation film, Caprice (1986), which starred Tilda Swinton as a young woman who is transported into the pages of a fashion magazine. She has shared her passion for films that freely traverse the boundaries between reality and fantasy, like Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s classic The Red Shoes, and Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz. Like the ballet dancer in the former, Julie is drawn into an expressionistic, Gothic world of lavish sets accompanied by a rich orchestral soundtrack. And, like the semi-autobiographical All That Jazz, Julie retreads her own experiences through music, movement and theatricality.
It’s startling when Hogg returns to the “reality” of the story, with Julie running at full-pelt down a country lane, at least partly released from her trauma via the act of making art. And just as her creativity has helped her escape, so the collision of realism and fantasy has liberated the film itself from the restrictions of genre, and the stylistic binary of realism and fantasy that British cinema is so often reduced to. We never see Julie’s film; her version of The Souvenir. We don’t need to. Hogg has taken us inside her head, laid bare her trauma and then set her free.