24 Lies a Second: The Square Root of Art

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The Square Root of Art

Martin Scorsese, esteemed producer, director, writer, and general elder statesman of the cinematic medium, caused a bit of a kerfuffle in 2019 when he declared that the films of Marvel Studios' meta-franchise were 'not cinema', likening them rather to theme parks – presumably on the grounds that they are simply a commercial undertaking, part of an endless stream of franchised product.

Well, everyone's entitled to an opinion, of course, but the great man's complaint seems a little peculiar given some of the projects he has lent his name to as executive producer recently. The interview about Marvel was released virtually on the same day that Joker came out, while right now Scorsese's cachet is being used to promote yet another example of a sequel intended to capitalise on the success of its forebear: Joanna Hogg's The Souvenir Part II.

I jest, of course, albeit probably quite feebly – but there is something distinctly odd about a film which was so clearly meant for the art house getting a follow-up like this. I asked for a ticket to Revenge of the Souvenir when I turned up at the cinema and the chap on the counter didn't bat an eyelid at it, but then they are probably used to me there. Nevertheless – obscure art house darlings don't get sequels. Do they?

It seems they do. For those who missed it, the first Souvenir film tells the story of a young English film-school student named Julia (played by Honor Swinton Byrne), who gets a bit distracted from her studies by her relationship with Anthony, a slightly older man working in the Foreign Office, especially the fact that he turns out to be a heroin addict who (spoiler alert) ends up dying of an overdose before the end of the film. I should add that this story is told in the most restrained and unsensational manner imaginable, with scenes going off at various tangents and much attention given to Julia's startlingly posh mum (Tilda Swinton) and other relatives.

Nothing about this screamed fertile material for a follow-up, but in some ways this hits all the targets for a good sequel: all the key creative personnel return, and the style and storyline from the first film continue seamlessly: you could probably edit the two films together into one three-hour-plus epic with the join barely showing (but I for one doubt I would have the stamina for that).

Describing the film in terms of the things that happen in the plot is probably a bit misleading, as – and here again it closely resembles the first film – it doesn't so much feel like a story being told, as much as things happening in front of the camera in a fairly off-hand manner. But: we find Julia still coming to terms with Anthony's death, spending time with her parents and his. The time of her graduation project from film school approaches. She enjoys a brief romantic entanglement with a fellow student.

Eventually the film settles down to focus on the film project, which – it slowly becomes clear – is an impressionistic retelling of the story of her relationship with Anthony. The school tutors are initially unimpressed by the half-finished script, and Julia is informed she can't expect their support. (A gob-smacking scene ensues where Julia casually asks her mum for £10,000 to help out with financing the film, and Mumsy naturally agrees.) Actors are cast, sets built, and a not-entirely-trouble-free shoot gets underway.

So: The Souvenir was an autobiographical film. The Souvenir Part II is an autobiographical film about the making of an autobiographical film – perhaps The Souvenir2 would have been a more appropriate title. The film is as recursive and self-referential as it sounds, but there is something strangely mesmerising about seeing another version of the events of the first film play out, not to mention a weird tension between the film's careful naturalism and its awareness of its own identity as a piece of fiction – Julia's own flat and the mock-up of it that appears in the film-within-the-film (which is, naturally, also called The Souvenir) are obviously both represented by the same set.

That said, the pace isn't any quicker this time around, and if you're not quite on board with the notion of a film which exists more as a piece of sensory and aesthetic art than as a narrative this probably isn't the film for you. There are more obvious incidental pleasures, I should say – chief amongst them the reappearance of Richard Ayoade as temperamental auteur Patrick, given to shouting things like 'You're forcing me to have a tantrum!' I really wanted Ayoade to be in the movie more, and found myself wondering why he's never had a lead role in a movie; he certainly has the presence for it.

As the film went on I found myself pondering the prospects of a Souvenir Part III and what it might involve – an autobiographical film about someone making an autobiographical film about an autobiographical film, perhaps. In the end, however, there is a very definite sense of a conclusion taking shape – the fictional version of The Souvenir is completed and screened, and the different layers of metafictionality begin to collapse into one another. From what we see of the fictional movie, it looks like a pretentious load of old cobblers, but in a strikingly different way from the 'real' Souvenir; nevertheless, both feature Julia as the lead character, rather than the character cast as her. Early in the film she is given a line of dialogue about her desire to make films that represent the imagination brought to life, rather than a straightforward recreation of life as it is lived – for most of the movie this feels like an ironic joke, given how naturalistic and low-key most of the action is – but Julia's own film holds true to this. And, perhaps, the conclusion of Souvenir Part II suggests that Joanna Hogg's films are equally works of the imagination. It certainly has all the strengths and weaknesses of the original film, but its subtle blending of different layers of fiction with reality gives it a depth and a puzzle-box quality all of its own. For many people it will doubtless just be a rather introspective film about posh people being pretentious together. But I suspect it's a very good rather introspective film about posh people being pretentious together.

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