Joanna Hogg and the Art of Life

Joanna Hogg and the Art of Life

Her remarkable two-part film The Souvenir examines how an artist turns the fragments of their personal history into an enduring story.

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When does a life become a story, a narrative legible to those outside it? This question trills at the heart of Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir (2019) and the new The Souvenir Part II, a two-part film à clef constructed like a precarious house of cards: memories, texts, and ephemera from a life, stacked carefully one upon another in the hope that they hold their shape. The films take their names from Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s rococo 18th-century painting The Souvenir, which shows a woman in a lustrous pink gown carving an initial into a tree; a letter, presumably from her lover, lies on the ground by her feet. It’s an image of willful alchemy—of turning a memory, a feeling, into an object and event in the exterior world. The painting itself reifies a scene in Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s epistolary 1761 novel Julie; or, The New Heloise, about the mercurial passions between a married woman and her former flame—which in turn draws on the medieval tale of the French nun Héloïse d’Argenteuil and, likely, Rousseau’s own romantic entanglements. To this series of artistic transfigurations, Hogg adds her own, constellating personal references as she reconstructs her youth: the 1938 song “A Souvenir of Love” by Jessie Matthews, the films of Powell and Pressburger, period fashion from Manolo Blahnik and Yohji Yamamoto, letters from Hogg’s former lover, 16-millimeter pictures she took in the 1980s. Together, all these objects and invocations comprise a life of the mind, an intellectual history assembled in the hope that it might represent something more than just that: the haphazard accumulations of one’s time on earth.

Hogg grew up in an upper-class family in the city of Kent, in the United Kingdom, in the 1960s and ’70s. After leaving school, she worked as a photographer for a few years before attending the National Film and Television School in the ’80s, during which time she embarked on the tempestuous relationship that inspired The Souvenir. But she made her first feature film, Unrelated, only in 2007, after a couple of decades of working in television and music videos. Her first three features, including Archipelago (2010) and Exhibition (2013), were inspired by autobiographical ruptures and set in the stuffy, patrician milieu of her youth, but 2019’s The Souvenir is unabashedly a memoir—a film born of Hogg’s belated realization that she could “tell a story about me.” When we first meet her screen-surrogate Julie, a 24-year-old film student played by a wonderfully receptive Honor Swinton Byrne, she is convinced that the kind of life worth telling stories about is happening elsewhere: not in her parents’ cozy, sunlit pied-à-terre in Knightsbridge, where she lives and hosts parties for her friends, or in her family’s luxurious mansion, surrounded by lush, flowery farmland. Julie has decided, as Hogg once did, that the elsewhere she seeks is Sunderland, a port city ravaged by the economic policies of the Thatcher era. In its gray, rain-flecked streets she imagines a mournful neorealist tale of a boy and his adoring mother, whose eventual demise represents the decay of the city.

If the idea reeks of poverty porn, it also lays bare a naked yearning for significance. Sheltered by both her privilege and her youth, Julie’s life lacks the kind of metonymy that lends private objects and events the weight of history or allegory. So when Fragonard’s The Souvenir enters her life, it’s with a semiotic thrill: Julie is introduced to it by Anthony (Tom Burke), a mysterious older man who draws her into a controlling relationship that swirls around his erudition and heroin addiction in equal measure. Anthony’s presence exudes tragedy from the get-go, and it bends Julie’s life into the arc of a narrative. Her days suddenly take on the contours of art—of great tragedies and romances—so that she’s drawn away from school and into manicuring, arranging, writing this life. A trip to Venice is preceded by solemn bedtime reading from E. Temple Thurston’s romantic novel The City of Beautiful Nonsense and the tailoring of a bespoke suit and a gown of shimmering gray silk; when Anthony commits an egregious deception right before the trip—he steals and sells Julie’s things and passes it off as a burglary—Julie goes on the trip anyway.

Recalling her own relationship in an interview, Hogg said that it was like being in a film as opposed to making one: “The show had to go on, and there was so much in the show—so much dreaming, all the ideas. It was creating a piece of work.” It’s easy to see why Julie gives in to Anthony’s lies. It isn’t merely naïveté or Stockholm syndrome; there’s also the seduction of seeing herself in the storied silhouette of something artful and dramatic, something akin to a Fragonard painting or Rousseau novel. Falling in doomed love is exciting for this reason—it unfolds like a story, the denouement already in view. Part of the pleasure of The Souvenir is in watching its two paths intersect: the cool, steady EKG rhythm of Hogg’s style, which levels events and nonevents in a series of long and loquacious scenes; and the familiar, parabolic arc of an ill-fated tryst between a young woman and a tortured man.

When Anthony dies at the end of The Souvenir, it’s like the close of a grand tragedy: preordained and finite, a full stop. Yet the show has to go on, and the centripetal concern of The Souvenir: Part II is how to continue—how to give form to Julie’s life without the mooring cliché of a troubled lover. Part II is appealingly dithering in this regard: haunted by mourning but uninterested in emotional or psychological revelation; devoted to filmmaking—as Julie casts, blocks, shoots, and edits her thesis project—but hesitant to trace the teleological arc of the artistic process. Instead, the camera is content to observe from a remove. Conversations are overheard or clipped, eluding answers; bodies move, often without clear context, through ornate streets, rooms, and soundstages. From a heated argument among the crew about Julie’s indecision and ineptitude as a director, we go, without much fuss, to the screening of her finished film. And here’s the metafilmic rub: What we’re watching—an assortment of moments from Julie’s life—is presumably the actual film she’s making, which she titles The Souvenir: Art Is Life. Whether that life is interesting in and of itself—and qualifies as art—is a question constantly posed to us. I thought several times, while watching the film, of a comment from James Wood’s review of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle: “I understood that this was My Struggle, but did it also have to be my struggle?” Hogg’s autofiction, if I may call it that, isn’t quite as stubbornly, tiringly detailed as Knausgaard’s, but it too evinces a fascination with the quotidian clutter of memory, its scenes and surfaces almost defiant in their ambition to become as much souvenirs in the life of the viewer’s mind as the director’s.

Who owns the story of one’s life, the right to give it form? Anthony’s death, in the opening of The Souvenir Part II, is both a sudden void and a new beginning; Julie now has a past, and the accoutrements of her life have acquired Proustian valences, unlike the borrowed scraps of the Sunderland story. And yet as Part II unfolds, Julie has to wrestle with the question of whether her experience is her own or shared with Anthony and the other people in her life. Her attempts to discern the truth of Anthony’s profession and death through conversations with his parents, friends, and fellow addicts yield few answers. When Julie asks her mother, Rosalind (Tilda Swinton, both the actress’s mother in real life and a former schoolmate of Hogg’s), what she felt when Anthony died, she replies simply, “Well, maybe I felt through you.” What precisely is ours, when our experience of our self and the world is always formed among others? The process of filmmaking throws this intersubjectivity into sharp relief: As Julie starts collaborating with her classmates on a film about her and Anthony’s relationship, she realizes that her story must now become theirs, too. “Well, that’s how it happened,” she says when her actress expresses confusion at her character’s behavior—a response that feels laughably insufficient as an alibi for art making.

Hogg’s filmmaking has always been energized by a kind of searching—she frequently shifts angle and scale within a scene, often disregarding the rules of continuity, as if seeking the right vantage point from which to penetrate reality. But here the search for a mode, a shape, becomes the very subject, brought into sharp focus by the several films-within-a-film that traverse The Souvenir Part II. The first comes in the form of a glorious black-and-white musical being directed by Patrick (Richard Ayoade), Anthony’s hilariously caustic and diva-esque friend. “Tell me what you feel!” he yells at Julie and his editor while reviewing rushes. The Souvenir Part II squirms under that mandate, trying to find a form appropriate to the nebulous feelings of grief and growth. There are other subtle slippages into and out of news footage, music videos, and snippets of Julie’s thesis film, which, ultimately, we never see. Instead, during her screening, we escape into a dreamscape that reinterpets Hogg’s own graduate film, Caprice—which stars Tilda Swinton as a young woman lost in a fashion fantasia inspired by the Technicolor musicals of Powell and Pressburger and Mitchell Leisen—through the looking glass of Julie’s subconscious. At one point, Julie shoots Anthony to death with a camera, dramatizing the fear that seems to fuel Hogg’s formal questing: that cinema might mummify real life, close out its essential contingency.

These interludes reflect forms and styles that Hogg has deployed and drawn inspiration from—her other stated influences include Martin Scorsese and Ulrike Ottinger—and next to their maximalist flourishes, the film proper can feel oddly repressed; lavish yet discreet. In a review in The New Yorker, Richard Brody locates this seeming stringency in the filmmaker’s sense of her own privilege. When Julie’s university professors deny her support for her errant project, she borrows £10,000 from her mother to make it anyway. “The money is guilt,” Brody writes, “and Hogg’s cinematic austerity amounts to a rejection of the pleasures it affords.” Yet, in a sense, the opposite is true: It is money that makes Hogg’s insular, pared-down wrestling with form—an intellectual if not visual extravagance—possible. The film’s emphatically personal telling is facilitated by a near-complete marginalization of all that is political or historical. The IRA bombing of a Harrods store happens off-screen, like a thunderstorm; taxi driver strikes are referenced, casually, as an inconvenience; Anthony’s vague invocations of the Foreign Office and its national security concerns to explain his fickleness go largely unquestioned in a setting of inconspicuous but evident conservative paranoia.

The world of the Souvenir films can seem closed off, but its walls are ever-porous, the outside world lapping at them like flames. And if art and questions of individual expression appear all-consuming, they are also, at the same time, rendered inconsequential. In a marvelous subplot, Rosalind takes up ceramics and makes a small sugar bowl with lumps for handles. It’s amateur and misshapen and, as her husband lovingly teases, the pitiful product of a whole month of learning. The pot shatters to bits in a scene both heartbreaking and—given Hogg’s muted, anti-dramatic style—minor. Art is brittle in Hogg’s world, always grating against the disorder of life. Why do we still dare to make it? The final shot of The Souvenir Part II attempts an answer. I won’t spoil its irreverent, self-reflexive magic, but suffice it to say that it both undercuts the film, exposing the always contrived boundaries of autofiction, and offers Hogg’s life to us as a a gift—an object that can now be a part of our lives, our shared world. And so we make art: not so that it may endure, but so that we may endure.

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