The Souvenir Part II And Joanna Hogg’s Relationship With Class

The second Souvenir film finds director Joanna Hogg reckoning with class, or however much she'd like to try and ignore it, finds Tom Tidnam

“I feel as though I want to not live my whole life in this very privileged part of the world I come from,” says Honor Swinton Byrne’s Julie in Joanna Hogg’s 2019 film The Souvenir. “I want to be really aware about what’s going on around me.” Julie is a quasi-autobiographical stand-in for Hogg, and the film recreates a traumatic love affair from her early 20s. Swinton Byrne is Hogg’s goddaughter, The Souvenir her first major film role. She is also the daughter of arthouse mainstay Tilda Swinton, who plays Julie’s mother in the film. Swinton and Hogg are lifelong friends, having attended boarding school in Kent together, and Swinton made an early appearance in Hogg’s 1986 film school graduation piece Caprice. Hogg’s film school travails drive the narrative of follow-up The Souvenir Part II, which details Julie’s response to the traumatic events of the first film. This complex webbing of autobiographical and metatextual elements intensifies the story dynamics at play, remarking, in the process, upon “this very privileged part of the world” that both Julie and Joanna Hogg come from.

In The Souvenir, Julie initially attempts, through art, to transcend her own background by making a social realist portrayal of working class life on the docks of Sunderland. When the charming, mysterious and deeply damaged Anthony sweeps her off her feet, he does so with bold pronouncements about the role of art in relation to life. “We don’t want to see life played out as it is,” he tells her, “we want to see it as it is experienced in this soft machine.” Anthony, an addict, dies of an overdose at the end of the first film, provoking a reflection and subsequent change of artistic tack in Julie. “I don’t want to show life as it plays out in real time” Julie says, explaining her change in direction to her sceptical film school tutors towards the start of The Souvenir Part II. “I want to show life as I imagine it.”

The brilliance of The Souvenir Part II lies in the way it succeeds in doing both at once. The disarming realism of the first film remains, with unmannered performances from a cast of often non-professional actors. But a new sumptuousness emerges too, in perfectly judged tandem with these familiar traits, expressing the ambition swirling through Julie’s head, as Anthony’s extolling of the virtues of Powell and Pressburger leads to their influence bleeding into the visual palette of the second film, and particularly Julie’s film-within-a-film. The sequel’s power builds upon the first film, opening up its form in dazzling and sometimes moving ways. Life is shown in a way that is both as real as possible and alluringly filmic.

Where does this shift leave Julie’s attempts to expand her scope beyond her own privileged upbringing? The films are aware of the limits of their own societal purview, yet insistently portray their characters fundamentally as humans experiencing pain, loss and trauma. At the same time, their auto-fictional dimension further highlights the integral connection between their material circumstances and the rarefied milieus they inhabit and observe. What makes them complicated is how they do so not necessarily uncritically, yet also not as critically as some of Hogg’s detractors may like.

Any internal critique of the centring of upper-middle-class lives in Hogg’s work becomes most marked in the Souvenir films, which contain a tacitly self-effacing class politics – the contrast between bohemian London and the genteel, bourgeois parochialism of Julie’s family home seems quietly pointed, while there is an awareness of the way Julie’s material circumstances affect her ability to explore her own inner world, as Anthony implores her to do in the first film. It’s obvious in the contrast between her initially intended work and her final graduation project. The Souvenir Part II becomes more of an ensemble piece than the two-hander the first film was, as Julie sheds the insular self she was in her relationship with Anthony, the world expanding beyond the immediate environment of the protagonists, looking increasingly outward even as Julie’s work turns inward. Hogg’s first three films are far more environmentally contained: the rented Tuscan villa of 2007’s Unrelated and the tense family holiday to the Scilly Isles in 2010’s Archipelago both present closed-off, isolated spaces for the well-heeled characters to express their internal angst and tensions without much interaction with the wider world.

“I tend to think other people think that I’m investigating class when actually I’m not that interested in it,” said Hogg in an interview around the release of the first Souvenir film. Discussing the particularly hermetic milieu of her third film Exhibition, released in 2013, Hogg, perhaps tellingly, said she was “making a film where no one’s going to talk about class, because I’m talking about two artists, artists are in a class of their own in a sense, so we’re not going to have these phrases bandied about like ‘privilege’ and ‘middle-class.’” It’s a strangely short-sighted remark from Hogg, as a vital thematic thread in her films from Archipelago onwards explores the link between one’s social status and their relationship to art. With The Souvenir, adversely, she admits to “heading into the eye of the storm because I’m dealing with a young woman who’s asking these questions herself.”

In making a film about her own experiences, Julie surrenders herself to the privileged upbringing she was trying to escape from, but it is that very upbringing that has allowed her the tools, platform and space to recreate and potentially work through her trauma. Her material circumstances remain integral, and the space to reflect is not merely internal, as we see in Julie’s chic Knightsbridge flat, where much of her troubled relationship with Anthony played out.

These films trade in a sort of cinematic auto-fiction, a form of fictionalised autobiography very much en vogue in contemporary popular literature. Names like Karl Ove Knausgaard, Chris Kraus, Eduoard Louis and Sheila Heti are synonymous with the style, but a much earlier pioneer of this melding of autobiography and fiction was Jean Genet, in his 1940s novels Miracle of the Rose and The Thief’s Journal, which dramatise his experiences on a penal colony and as a criminal and prostitute across Europe. Despite the accusations of bourgeois navel-gazing some auto-fiction may receive, Genet was radical and outward-looking, seeking to subvert traditional moral values through an unflinching portrayal of lives usually ascribed to the underbelly of European life and culture. By positioning himself amidst these lives, blurring fact and fiction, he challenged assumptions and prejudices of readers in a way that was genuinely disruptive and audacious. A generation or so later, another pioneer of this ambivalent style, Annie Ernaux, used it to present an unadorned accounting of the small, accumulative facts of her life. Positioning herself within broader French society allowed her to comment on it without resorting to didacticism, remaining deeply personal and not undercutting the inherently political nature of such self-examination. Her own life and those of her parents, the people she grew up with and the people she observes on the Paris Metro, its streets and supermarches serve as a collective chronicle of French society and its stratified class structure.

Ernaux’s working class background, and her conflicted extraction from that background into the rarefied world of literature, lends her work a conflict, an outsider’s radical eye that Hogg’s privileged background may deny, creating a more ambivalent relationship to the auto-fiction form. Discussion of Hogg’s films could be more open about this. It is their simultaneous acknowledgement of the class system, and raw emotional truth that allows it to be briefly forgotten, that lends them their ambivalent power. To dismiss the class politics running through them is to do them a disservice, however, just as much as it would be to apply a strictly materialist critical reading of them. One should not dismiss her work for the gaze it fixes on a privileged elite as much as one should not ignore criticisms arguing that the world she portrays is alienating to many, but should instead call for a more broadly democratised cinematic landscape in which many voices as vital as Hogg’s may have the opportunity to produce work as simultaneously innovative and honest as hers.

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