On an otherwise clean whiteboard, my undergraduate screenwriting professors used to scrawl two words: “want,” “need.” They'd circle them vigorously, then ask over and over, what does the character want? What does the character need? I sat around the classroom table unable to respond but considering the questions in earnest, marveling at the ease with which some of my peers came up with answers. My scripts faltered often, and I knew that their insufficiency wasn't of language but of articulation. I wanted my characters to need real though elusive things, like love and fulfillment. But my imagination resisted the stretch—their wants, needs, and obstacles came to be too neat, trying too hard to answer the questions.
I knew what a good film was; more than that, I knew what a good film could be, and chased a sensation that tingles first behind your eyes, then in the bottom of your stomach, and finally the balls of your feet after you watch something great. For hours I would bask under the world's new hues, replaying images in my head. But it's infinitely easier to feel than to evoke, and I watched movies like a kid trying to figure out the exact moment when the magician swapped the card; learning the trick itself wasn't going too well. Through four years of film school, I carried my frustration, my inability to articulate what I knew I wanted. It's a particular kind of humiliation, the kind made worse by the fact that the only thing separating what you imagine from what you see is a knot in your throat.
This is what Joanna Hogg's second installment of her personal history of grief and filmmaking, The Souvenir Part II, feels like: a knot in the throat. In a van, going home from a shoot, film student Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne) sits silently while her crew, not unjustifiably, rattles off her inadequacies as a director. There's no shot list; she keeps changing the shot after it's set up; the characters don't know what they want, what they need, or what's stopping them from getting either; it's never clear whether it's day or night; nobody knows what is going on. Julie has nothing by way of defense, except maybe for saying, every now and again: in real life, that's how it happened. Behind her eyes, veiled by tears she repeatedly blinks back, we can almost see the gears of Julie's brain spinning, working in their own rhythm, seemingly in a reality too far removed to translate into something tangible. Far removed, though no less real than the van and its litany of accusations. Bound to these two worlds, and most of all to fact, Julie's task is to prove their ability to exist on the same plane. We sit around the table with her while she considers the question in earnest, unable to respond.
Last we saw Julie, in the previous 2019 film, she was making a movie about a boy growing up working-class on the docks of Sunderland in the eighties, an experience alien to her upper-middle-class upbringing. Her film professors had been concerned about this point, advising that starting from your own experience could lead to more productive places, but Julie believed in the power of art to burst her bubble, to free her from the claustrophobia of her subjectivity. With her first effort, Julie was in essence fighting against that claustrophobia, against what Anthony (Tom Burke), her boyfriend, called "received versions" of reality. He kept bringing this up. For him, her contentions of something he said, something he did, and even her ideas about her own movie always came back to this: her reliance on "received versions" of what those things were supposed to be or represent. Last we saw Julie, she was grieving Anthony's tragic death by overdose, her experience of reality collapsed, shattered beyond recognition.
Now, in Part II, in her parents' farmhouse, Julie sleeps. She takes walks, eats sandwiches, wears an abundance of cream-colored cashmere. Cozy and domestic, reality slowly creeps in, establishes itself in the softness of her mother's tone, of a sweater. She goes back to film school, back to the table. The same professors who had advised her to start from experience now regard her with skepticism. She has changed her project to a film about her relationship with Anthony, her actual experience contained between the pages of a script she binds with a red satin bow. Her professors tell her the film school can't support the script as it is presently written, because there is no script to speak of, just a bundle of incohesive ideas. The ideas, of course, are both feeling and fact; not fighting against her "received version" of the relationship but leaning into it: "I want to show life as I imagine it," Julie explains.
This line is Julie's most eloquent articulation of what she is setting out to do, and like Anthony's received versions, everything could and probably does come back to it. But for how well it summarizes her project, it's also elusive in nature, based on an abstraction that can only be made concrete by articulating a response to the follow-up questions: alright, so what does the character want, what does the character need? The professors can't glean the answers from the red-bow-document, or from Julie's response, but this is the old frustration: for Julie, the answers are all there, in the reconciliation between feeling and fact, reality and fiction, in the very act of writing the events out in the first place. Sincere storytelling begins with a commitment to emotional truth, to nailing down life as you imagine it, to making feelings of images. To evoking, rather than explaining. Try telling it to a film professor and see how it goes. At the base of your throat that knot begins to form, impossible to ignore but difficult to get out. The insufficiency is not of language but of articulation—it's almost a rhetorical problem.
"A document" is how Joanna Hogg describes her scripts, pages of ideas and images that serve as a sort of guide to the story, though not a rigid structure for where it might go. In a Q&A with the New York Film Festival's director of programming, Dennis Lim, Hogg talked about her documents, and how from first conception in the late eighties, she knew that The Souvenir would be a story told in two parts. In the first, Swinton Byrne didn't read the document before shooting, so she didn't know where the story would go, much like Julie and the young Hogg before her. Julie as a fictional character is less a character than a way to represent the young Hogg, and if she can be read as a character at all, it's much in the same way we refer to the first person of a nonfiction work as "the narrator" instead of by name. The passage of time is one of nonfiction's greatest gifts in that it grants the potential to question why things might have gone the way they did. But in order to approximate fiction to life, and to prove their ability to exist on the same plane, Hogg replaces hindsight with the immediacy of fiction: without a temporal advantage, Swinton Byrne imbued in Julie a reaction to life as it happened. Coming into the production of Part II, Hogg explained during the Q&A, Swinton Byrne read the document: she knew where the story was going. Julie now had a clear sense of direction, showing life as she imagined it, much like the Hogg that came after her.
The young Hogg, Julie, and the older Hogg—maybe even Swinton Byrne herself—exist on the same feedback loop, relying on each other to tell the story. Their relationship is abundantly obvious in the films—they're not a guessing game of the autobiographical kind, on which the audience might project their stipulations about the film’s maker. The films are a distillation of autobiography in the purest sense, and the levels of metatext—Julie making a film about the Julie of the past, directed by the Julie of the future—build on each other in order to construct a house sturdy enough to bear the story. Julie becomes a music video director after graduating from film school. On set, she is much more self-assured, confident in her ability. She is older, it's true, but maybe it's also easier to find comfort in abstraction and detachment than it is to articulate the truth of imagination, the reality of feeling. In response to an interviewer, looking directly into the camera, Julie says, "I hope I have something to say in my thirties."
Films that rely on metatextual tools tend to either take on a cynicism towards the insufficiency of the medium or be narrowly interested in aesthetics, pushing stylization into meaning. But in Hogg's hands, meta-tools are the meaning itself: the only way to tell the story, to play it on the feedback loop. If The Souvenir emotionally resonates to astounding degrees, it's because it is deliberately built to accommodate this particular kind of emotional truth: the knot in the throat comes undone, having worked its way through detangling for some one hundred minutes. The sigh of relief comes with the fact that Julie not only had something to say before she was thirty, but that she did say it after all. The film is a monument to it. The filmmaker, the character and the audience sigh together. If art can set you free, then it is in the catharsis of articulation that freedom extends its hand. In the final shot, the boundary between fiction and nonfiction broken, I nearly shed a tear, the knot finally undone.
With both parts of The Souvenir, though, the intellectual parsing of metatext comes much later––only after that initial, blessed shock of recognition, after the back of your eyes tingle and a bounce in the balls of your feet floats you out of the theater. These are films that, as the German film scholar Peter W. Jansen once put it, "feel like they have something to do with you."