Life as a House: Exhibition

FILM, Film Festivals
img_exhibitionJoanna Hogg’s penetrating new film—her best yet—explores a ménage a trois between husband, wife and house.

For the first time in Joanna Hogg’s universe, the house is a central character. In her two previous features, Unrelated (2008) and Archipelago (2010), it played an important supporting role, a conduit for the suppressed anger and resentment present in two painful family gatherings. In her latest film, Exhibition, it is literally on display, an open home on the market through which we are invited to witness the comings and goings of a couple and their relationship to the spaces within. The real estate in question is a townhouse designed by the late modernist architect James Melvin: from the exterior a robust cubic structure on a quiet West London street; from the inside an unusual array of secluded rooms and partitioned areas, all hard lines and smooth surfaces connected by a double helix staircase, a kind of axis around which the two occupants rotate. H (Turner-nominated artist Liam Gillick), a conceptual artist, works on the upper floor while D (former lead singer of The Slits Viv Albertine), a performance artist, has a studio on the level below. Apart from eating and sleeping together, they remain largely separated by their workstations, often communicating via intercom. Other mannerisms suggest an emotional, sexual, and creative distance. Hogg examines the fragility of this relationship as if it is tied intrinsically to the house, a very human notion in the sense that we all attribute emotional value to the places we call home. The reverse of this is that domestic spaces can also be responsible for discomfort and malaise in our lives, and Hogg’s film explores this dichotomy with a sharp, penetrating stare.

Since Unrelated, Hogg has focused on human dynamics in close-knit situations, though Exhibition is a clear distillation of the parts put together in the previous two films: Unrelated’s sprawling family holiday on an Italian villa was pared back to three immediate family members (and a few peripheral characters) in Archipelago, and now with this latest film, the scenario has been refined down to a chamber piece between husband and wife. At the same time, Exhibition is a confident departure for Hogg insofar as she is fully engaged with architecture on a symbolic and psychological level. Evidently, the building blocks are there for Hogg to investigate modernist alienation in the Antonioni vein, but what’s impressive about her film is that it finds a way to operate under and over this predictable framework. There isn’t an ideological weight to these spaces so much as there is the burden of several lifespans—the architect and his family beforehand, and now H and D’s 20 years of marriage together—and this is described not only visually and spatially, but with a certain amount of abstraction that feels like new ground for Hogg.

There’s also a psychosexual pulse to the film in relation to habitat, and the house performs an important role in terms of character study: within its glassy modernist perimeter and ‘white cube’ interior aesthetic, D’s sexual frustrations and domestic anxieties play out as an extension of her performance art. Whether it’s grinding on a stool in her office, binding herself in tape as part of a performance piece, or moving nervously about an empty home, D’s behaviour is exhibitionist in nature. Even her most personal moments (sex, masturbation), or for that matter most theatrical (her pretend ‘fainting’), are staged acts in an environment without traditional walls or boundaries. Hogg is extremely attentive to the idea of security in this respect: her compositions and viewpoints prod away at undisclosed spaces and thresholds, and there is a physical dimension to D’s attachment to the house, either alluded to in her mild agoraphobia or witnessed directly on several occasions where she is seen hugging her body to surfaces and objects in the house.

Whereas the great outdoors provided a release from the domestic claustrophobia in Hogg’s earlier films, the characters in Exhibition aren’t necessarily at ease in either setting. There’s an implicit tension throughout the film—inside/outside, together/apart, conceal/reveal—and it is through this friction between private and public space that Hogg is able to experiment with the psychology of sound. Some of the most memorable scenes in Unrelated and Archipelago involve loud, excruciating arguments and the awful sound of yelling and screaming as it reverberates throughout a house. The house in Exhibition is just as porous, but because there are only two characters in residence, the sound design is immediately more suggestive and unsettling. Movements rather than voices are captured; suspense is developed aurally rather than orally. There’s also a heightened awareness of noise filtering into the house from urban surroundings. Such an unerring attention to sound design is, coincidentally, not only a feature of this film but also a good proportion of others I’ve encountered at the New Zealand International Film Festival so far. Along with Under the Skin, Story of My Death, and Manakamana, Exhibition reminds us that sound is just as important as image in the makeup of a film’s form and function.

The unstable relationship is a familiar concern in art cinema—Antonioni, again, is an obvious exponent of the subject, as is his spiritual pupil, Nuri Bilge Ceylan, whose new film Winter Sleep dissects marriage through a combination of expert craft and dramaturgy. There are plenty of masters in this field, and Hogg’s entry can certainly feel sparse and impenetrable against such highly literate examinations of human disconnect, particularly as her non-professional leads are limited to a stiff naturalism. Hogg, however, isn’t interested in a theatrical mise en scène. She is motivated by sensory perception, and the revelations of her film take place in an orbit around its human centre. Glacial is misplaced as a description in this sense because it ignores the hypersensitivity of Hogg’s approach. One critic compared the interplay between H, D, and the Melvin house to a love triangle, and as a distinct entity in its own right—a building with its own murmur, texture, and personality, much like the old mansion in Maria de Orbe’s Aita—it absolutely completes the ménage a trois.

Exhibition (Joanna Hogg, UK, 2013)

Screening: Auckland | Wellington

Filed under: FILM, Film Festivals

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Tim Wong is the founding editor of The Lumière Reader. He specialises in film and visual arts criticism, has covered film festivals in Europe and North America, and was the only New Zealand-based critic invited to vote on Sight and Sound’s decennial “Ten Greatest Films of All Time” poll in 2012. He is also a freelance web and graphic designer. In 2015 he wrote and directed Out of the Mist.