Exhibition, film review: Joanna Hogg's haunting study of emotional interiors

4.00

(15) Joanna Hogg, 104 mins Starring: Viv Albertine, Liam Gillick, Tom Hiddleston

Joanna Hogg is an utterly distinctive figure in contemporary British cinema. She makes thoughtful, provocative arthouse movies about the tribulations of bourgeois characters.

Her films are intimate, closely focused character studies that probe away at the behaviour and discontents of her protagonists in a forensic but quietly comical fashion. Her storytelling style is low key. The richness of her work lies in its detail and nuance.

Hogg’s third feature, Exhibition, is her most rewarding yet. It marks a clear departure from its predecessors, Unrelated and Archipelago. This time round, the characters aren’t on holiday. They’re a couple – two artists living together in a modernist house in west London. As in genre fare such as The Amityville Horror or What Lies Beneath, the house (designed by James Melvin) is as much a character as the central couple. (Hogg has called the film “an inside-out ghost story”.) The house seems to shape their behaviour and moods. With its vast sliding doors and ladder-like stairs, it resembles a space ship in a 1970s sci-fi drama.

D (played by Viv Albertine, former singer with punk band the Slits) is first seen lying, cat-like, on a windowsill. She occupies one part of the house. Her partner, H (Liam Gillick), is in another corner of the house, working on his projects. Hogg is exploring a paradoxical, very modern relationship. It is at once intimate and distant. H and D seem close. They have an active love life. While in their respective offices, they communicate by telephone. He tries to lure her upstairs for sex. In bed, he reads to her.

The framing of the couple in designer interiors rekindles memories of David Hockney paintings; for example, his famous picture of the fashion designer Ossie Clark and his wife, Celia Birtwell, a fashionable 1960s couple shown in a home not unlike the one they occupy. There are Hockney-like shots of D swimming naked in the very blue water of the pool.

They live and work under the same roof. At the same time, there is an emotional wariness and even distrust between them. D, a performance artist, is sensitive about the way her partner criticises her work. “You’ll just say it’s silly and glib… you won’t get it,” she complains about his patronising attitude toward her.

H and D are planning to sell the house. They don’t have children and are hugely irritated by their friends and neighbours prattling on about the achievements or problems of their offspring. However, their feelings about the house, in which they’ve lived for 18 years, are strangely similar to those of the parents about their kids. They dote on the place but feel they have outgrown it – or it has outgrown them. It exasperates and delights them in equal measure. On one level, they are also its captives.

As the title suggests, the couple are putting on an act. Hogg invites us to look in at their lives in their modernist dream home. The film plays on the idea of our voyeurism and that of H and D themselves, often shown peering through the house’s huge windows at the world beyond.

Exhibition is a film about space and about atmosphere. Dialogue is sparse. Yet it also has some of its director’s trademark sly humour. As in Hogg’s previous work, there are frequent shifts between the profound and the banal. We see H sweeping the water off the building’s flat roof. Hogg films in tableau fashion with a static camera. There are shots of half-open doors and of trees reflected in the glass.

As the couple fret about their art and their relationship, two cheery but vulture-like estate agents (one played by Tom Hiddleston, who has become a major star since being “discovered” by Hogg) are keen to sell it. The scenes of dinner parties in which H and D struggle to conceal their exasperation with their friends could come out of a Mike Leigh film. So could the funny, cleverly observed scenes in which H has a furious row with a decorator who has had the temerity to park too close to his doorway. His anger reveals how territorial he is. The idea of an outsider too close to his home appals him, even though he is in the process of leaving the house.

The film, like all of Hogg’s work, has a  deliberately understated quality. She is leaving the audience to make up its own mind about  her characters’ motivation and behaviour. Hogg has directed episodes of EastEnders and Casualty, but there are no melodramatic set-pieces here. This is a story in which next to nothing seems to happen beyond the couple pottering around their home – and yet it is also apparent that H and D are at a key transitional moment in their lives together. Neither Albertine nor Gillick are professional actors but they are not called on to make great demonstrations of emotion. Their performances are as restrained as Hogg’s direction. (When H finally declares his enduring love for D, he does by answer phone.)

Hogg’s determinedly oblique style will infuriate filmgoers used to movies which spell out their intentions. At times, Exhibition seems more a behavioural study than a piece of drama. However, it has its own gently beguiling rhythm which makes it easier and more pleasurable to watch than its synopsis might suggest – and it has an emotional kick, too.

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