Joanna Hogg is one of the most exciting film directors working in Britain today. A graduate of the National Film and Television School, Hogg spent the 1990s working in British television on series such as Casualty, London’s Burning and an Eastenders spin-off exploring the wartime exploits of a young Dot Cotton. While a decade behind the cameras of soap operas and disposable dramas does not usually herald the arrival of a major directing talent, it is worth remembering that British soap operas have a long history of social realism meaning that every year Hogg spent on Casualty and London’s Burning was a year in which she got better at observing people and the worlds they inhabit.
Hogg’s eye for social rituals and group dynamics was evident even in her debut feature Unrelated. The film revolves around a woman who joins her friends on holiday as an excuse to spend some time away from her partner. Upon arriving in Italy, the woman finds herself in a house that is already split down the middle along generational lines and decides to hang out with her friends’ hedonistic teenaged children rather than the people she came to visit. This yields a splendid holiday until a failed attempt at seduction sends the woman scurrying back to the grown-up side of the house and the grown-up life she left in Britain. While Unrelated is a recognisably British film about recognisably British characters who behave in a recognisably British way, the film’s treatment of its subject matter evokes European rather than British cinema. Aside from a southern climate and an interest in middle-aged sexuality that recalls works like Ozon’s Swimming Pool, Unrelated is defined by its emotional ambiguities and a fondness for long dialogue-free scenes and palate-cleansing landscape photography that are common in European cinema but almost entirely absent from British film.
Much like Unrelated, Hogg’s Archipelago is best understood as an attempt to explore the products of British social realism using the language of French art house drama. However, where Hogg’s first film seemed to go out of its way to retain such European topoi as sun-drenched holiday homes and illicit affairs, her second film is far more recognisably British thanks to its focus on wind-blasted landscapes and awkward family holidays. Shot on the isles of Scilly off the South-West coast of Cornwall, Archipelago features a pair of grown-up children who decide to go on holiday with their mother. The family’s unhappiness is manifest right from the start as disagreements escalate into arguments with a speed that suggests the presence of unaddressed problems. However, despite numerous elephants in the room, the family never sit down to discuss their feelings… they simply evade and deflect them by choosing to blow up over ridiculous things such as choice of bathroom and whether or not a piece of food has been properly cooked. Elegantly reserved when it comes to its characters’ actual inner lives, Archipelago is a magnificent study of the British middle-classes and how taboos surrounding direct confrontation and talking about one’s feelings have encouraged people to become emotionally self-contained. The film suggests that while this system of self-containment may be completely unreliable, it is supported by a cultural tolerance of passive-aggressive venting and the kind of extreme emotional projection that would probably be regarded as psychotic in a more emotionally-expansive culture. Like Unrelated, Archipelago explores these ideas in a quintessentially European manner by forcing the audience to observe only to then pull back and provide them with evocative imagery that will encourage them to draw their own conclusions about the things they have just been shown. This willingness to use European cinematic techniques to explore British emotional landscapes not only made for an incredibly fresh cinematic experience, it also served as a timely reminder of how staid, unadventurous and lacking in diversity European art house film can be.
Archipelago is not only a perfect fusion of British social realism and European cinematic vocabulary but also the completion of an experimental journey that began with Unrelated. This posed an interesting question: if Archipelago was everything that Unrelated wanted to be, where would their director go next?
Joanna Hogg’s third film Exhibition is also her most ambitious. Like its predecessors, the film uses a European cinematic vocabulary to explore the emotional dynamics of British middle-class life. However, whereas Unrelated and Archipelago both revolved around relatable characters who were really quite easy to understand, Exhibition concerns itself with a couple whose inner lives are so bizarre and complex that they can only be expressed artistically.
The film opens with a shot of huge plate glass windows opening out onto some trees. In front of the window is an almost featureless green shape that eventually twitches and unfolds to reveal a middle-aged woman who had been asleep on the floor in front of the windows. Aside from establishing that this character is the type of woman who falls asleep on floors in the middle of the day, the opening shot hints at a rather odd relationship between character and environment: I looked at the screen and noted the vast wooden floors and floor-to-ceiling windows but I could not recognise the person who called that space a home… It was almost as though the architecture had taken precedence over the humanity. The relationship between the film’s characters and the space they inhabit is absolutely central to Exhibition as the film revolves around a pair of artists who work out of their immaculate modernist home in Kensington, West London.
Exhibition builds on the foundations laid by Archipelago and explores the bonds between people who have grown highly adept at avoiding both confrontation and the need to express their feelings in an accessible manner. The terms of engagement are set quite early on when performance artist D (played by Viv Albertine) explains to her conceptual artist partner H (played by Liam Gillick) that she refuses to discuss her work with him as any input or judgement he offered would serve only to distort her process. Whether or not this is a real reflection of the couple’s dynamic is unclear but D shows real fear that sharing her thoughts with her partner would be either fruitless or counterproductive as his attempts to be helpful might serve to undermine her confidence.
There is something rather perverse about two artists living together for decades and still being incapable of expressing their emotions but Hogg neatly unpacks this conceit by suggesting that while D and H can express themselves, they choose to do so in places the other cannot visit and in languages the other cannot understand. For example, H’s work is presented as something intensely rational and cerebral that exists on his laptop while D’s process involves her falling asleep in strange places and then dressing up in strange outfits in order to rub herself against a variety of objects in the privacy of her office. How can two people with such different modes of expression communicate with each other? Therein lays the tension that drives the film.
As is often the case in art house dramas, Hogg underlines the couple’s failure to communicate by having them systematically fail to have sex but the communication problems also manifest themselves as H locking himself in the bathroom, lying on the ground in Hyde park and going out for a walk in the middle of the night while D begs him not to leave the house. Throughout the film, D and H attempt to escape this impasse by making various overtures (usually involving the house’s intercom) but the overtures are invariably rejected. While the film is ostensibly about the life of the couple, Hogg shows a marked preference for D’s point of view and so we are treated to a series of almost comically surreal moments in which D either makes or rejects an overture only to visibly cringe at the sound of H’s office chair being pushed back from his desk on the floor above.
Like all of Hogg’s films to date, Exhibition revels in its own emotional opacity. Hogg gives her audience access to the intimate lives of her characters and yet withholds vital pieces of information that would allow us to identify the source of their problems. This is because the point is not to understand why the characters behave the way they do but rather to observe the patterns they trace as they dance around their feelings. In Unrelated, the pattern was a simple back-and-forth between different groups of people while Archipelago drafted a more intricate pattern of projection and rejection in and around a family holiday. Exhibition is even more ambitious as while the film again concerns itself with the life of emotionally self-contained middle-class people, it also considers whether the shape of the dancefloor might influence not only how the dancers move but also whether they choose to step onto the dancefloor in the first place.
Hogg’s desire to explore the connection between the space the couple inhabit and the health of their relationship is evident from the way she shoots the house. For example, D’s spaces are cluttered and painted a passionate red while H’s are a featureless white. Also striking is the way that Hogg presents D’s office as a tiny little box entered through a pair of vaginal sliding doors until the end of the film when D pulls up the blinds, folds back the doors and reveals the fact that her space always contained the potential for transparency. Transparency also plays an interesting role in determining the film’s atmosphere as while the house’s floor-to-ceiling windows create what an architect might describe as a real sense of light and space, they also invoke feelings of paranoia and claustrophobia as being able to see out comes at a cost of everyone else being able to see in.
It is tempting to see the house as a rather conventional reflection of the couple and their problems: The spaces they inhabit are not only gendered, they also reflect the personality of the occupants and a plotline involving H’s attempt to sell the house and move on feels as though it might be a manifestation of a deeper desire to end his relationship with D but the truth is considerably more complex.
Using D as a focal point, Hogg assembles a three-way relationship between the shape of the house, the state of D’s latest art project and the health of H and D’s relationship. Every attempt to reduce the film’s thematic payload to one of these subjects is immediately undercut by a scene demonstrating how a simple relationship can also work in the opposite direction. For example, we see how working at home in separate offices gives the couple an excuse not to talk but we also see how D uses the house’s unique architecture to erect walls around spaces that could just as easily be open. Similarly, while Hogg suggests that H might be looking to sell the house as a means of getting rid of D, she also suggests that the desire to escape the past and move forward might be part of a plan to lure D out of her unresponsive little red box and out into a world that is considerably less scary than she would like to think. Hogg also sets up links between D’s stalled sexuality, her need to open the blinds in her office and bringing her current art project to conclusion in order to begin a public installation. This is a film with multiple points of thematic entry but also multiple points of exit; sex, art and architecture are the couple’s emotional currency and you cannot think or talk about any of them without also recognising the influence of the others.
Exhibition is beautifully shot, intelligently conceived and emotionally complex in a way that is never anything less than engaging but it must be said that works chronicling the emotional lives of middle-class people are not exactly hard to come by in the world of art house film. While Hogg’s desire to use a European cinematic vocabulary to explore British lives is certainly refreshing, what makes this film exciting is the pervasive sense that Hogg is ready to move on from this particular set of themes. One of the major differences between Archipelago and Exhibition is that while both films keep their characters at arm’s length, Exhibition makes repeated use of surrealist imagery to hint at the characters’ emotional state. These techniques are most effective when Hogg focuses her attention on D’s sexuality and the film includes a lovely little vignette that may or may not have been the fantasy that broke her psychological impasse and allowed her not only to complete her project but also to move on with her life by leaving the house.
While the interaction between sex, art and architecture may provide the film with a thematic spine, much of the film is devoted to a more detailed exploration of D’s sexuality and how that sexuality interacts not only with H but also with her art. The film’s decision to follow D more closely than it follows H not only serves to ‘other’ his more noticeably male tendencies, it also strikes a rather ambivalent tone regarding him as while the film presents H as sensitive and well-intentioned, it also suggests that many of H’s attempts to help or encourage D comes stem from a lack of empathy and a failure to really grasp what it is that is going on in D’s head. These character beats feed back into the stuff about relationships but they also pay off in a wonderful vignette in which D practices her performance in an open window while H looks on impassively from the outside, the pain of glass representing both the emotional distances within the couple and the fact that H will never truly understand what it means to be D. In fact, while the film heavily implies that the couple solve their problems towards the end of the film, one could argue that the film is all about D breaking her emotional dependence on both H and the house.
Jonathan, certainly appreciate getting obscure gems and such brought to attention. Just bookamrked those in my IMDb watchlist. Have you considered uploading your reviews under their critics reviews section?
Interesting to see drama unadulterated coming out of England if there’s any resonance in this piece: http://www.theguardian.com/film/2010/aug/08/britain-grown-up-films-french
I’m curious about the European cinematic technique or vocabulary being tepid or stale now? Overuse, an inherent monotony or lack of inventive expression?
Hi Ali :-)
I used to upload my stuff to IMDb fairly regularly but I don’t think I’ve done it for a while. I should probably start back up.
That’s a very well-written and observed piece and I agree with almost all of it except for the fact that he omits the role played by cinema chains in the decline of British film:
One big difference between France and the UK is that French cinemas haven’t turned their back on adult audiences. I moved out of London a few years ago and while there are a few cinemas that show artier films most of them will happily drop their arty output in order to cash in on popular films and non-specifically arty cinemas almost never stray from a diet of kids films and blockbusters. The reason that the British film industry struggles to produce successful grown-up films is that cinemas refuse to show them outside of London and Manchester. French cinemas never lost their faith in the capacity to put bums on seats by showing films about life in your 30s, 40s, 50s and beyond.
Another factor is that French cinemas were long obliged to show French-language films and French TV stations like Canal Plus were forced to show a certain percentage of European films meaning that audiences were never allowed to become addicted to the Hollywood approach to storytelling.
I think that European art house film is going through a troubled time… There is still fantastic work being done in Europe but I think that the reluctance to move outside of the commercial comfort zone of stories about middle-aged middle-class people having affairs and being a bit unhappy is problematic. I also think that those techniques are now so well understood and widely taught in film schools that they are beginning to lose their impact. For example, the TV series Mad Men is really nothing more than an expensively-made soap opera but the series makes frequent use of art house techniques in order to give itself the illusion of depth. There are way too many films that use art house techniques as a means of compensating for their lack of ideas and that’s a real danger sign in any cultural milieu.
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