It can be a bit daunting to immerse yourself in a filmmaker’s entire body of work within a short period of time, especially when the worldview you’re being inundated with is as fraught with isolation, simmering social tension, and artistic frustration as British low-budget auteur Joanna Hogg’s. But the binge-viewing tactic can also be fascinating, highlighting the sense of logical progression, maturation, and thematic connection that snakes it way through an oeuvre. This is the experience that the New York Film Festival’s Emerging Artist series allows. The series does crucial work in expanding the visibility of intriguing and exciting filmmakers whose works were previously unavailable (or simply unknown) to US audiences, but also presents the opportunity to become unusually intimate with a filmmaker and her or his artistic philosophy. Hogg’s inclusion coincides with this year’s fascinating and haunting Exhibition, a depiction of a married bohemian couple coming to terms with leaving their longtime London home.
The order in which Hogg’s films are viewed is also uniquely important. All three films are autobiographical in a certain sense, if not in their narrative material, than in the anxieties they reveal in their characters. 2008’s Unrelated features a woman rebelling against age, 2010’s Archipelago places a young man’s quarter life crisis squarely in the crossfire of a tense family vacation, and Exhibition displays the fragility with which an aging marriage, and the familiar comforts that come with it, can be punctured and shattered. The films and their thematic material mature and develop with their filmmaker.
All of Hogg’s films deal with a certain subset of hip, sophisticated London artists, although her first two films place these characters far from their lofts and studios. Unrelated is set at a villa in Tuscany, where Anna (Kathryn Worth) is running from an unspecified conflict with her husband under the guise of visiting an old school friend and her family, and soon strikes up a questionable friendship with her friend’s nephew (a young, perfectly charming Tom Hiddleston in his film debut). Archipelago is set under the brooding, foreboding skies of Cornwall, where Edward (Hiddleston again) grapples with his decision to move to Africa to work in a sex education clinic with his girlfriend, while staying in a cottage with his passive-aggressive mother and sister. Both films burn slowly down a long fuse. These self-deluded characters’ attempts at escape end up landing them in even more trouble. In a more melodramatic film the faux-placated resentments churning in these confined, picturesque locations would explode into something more dangerous, and although there are plenty of snarling screaming matches and acidic barbs, Hogg expertly manages to play both of these situations in the lowest, most natural of keys.
One of Hogg’s greatest strengths is to completely eschew the theatricality of her national cinema’s traditions. Hogg’s camera is perfectly content to sit and observe the seemingly dullest and most specific of moments: cooking, swimming, hanging a painting, sitting in isolated silence. Even Mike Leigh looks fanciful and cinematic by comparison. Eric Rohmer is an easily spotted influence in the quiet watchfulness of Hogg’s work, and by extension these films are recognizable half-siblings to the American low-budget movement that came of age at the same time as Unrelated. It’s almost as if Hogg, who made her name in episodic British television, was fed up by the constraints placed on her by the medium and rebelled in the most antithetical (and French) way possible.
Stylistically, Exhibition may initially appear similar, but one main difference is obvious right from the first shot. Where the first two films followed characters attempting to escape their “life crises” in scenic areas far from London, Exhibition contains itself right in the hotbed of urban anxiety and alienation. This time, the main character has no intention of leaving.
A married couple (punk rocker Viv Albertine and artist Liam Gillick), never referred to by name, work on their individual artistic pursuits inside their labyrinthine, post-modern loft-like house; often communicating by intercom from their respective offices. Shadows reach through glassy walls and entire scenes play out in the reflections of windows. The entirety of the austere complex most closely resembles a fish bowl, within which the viewers are allowed to watch the minutiae of these character’s aging lives, from the boring to the heartbreaking. Gillick’s character (referred to as “H” in the credits) is pushing to sell the house, but his wife (“D”) is clearly very attached to it. Her career is in a frustrating lull, and she admits to a friend that she fears that any break in normalcy and tradition will result in her marital relationship becoming dangerously unstitched. It was hard for me to ignore Viv Albertine’s resemblance to a certain other loft-dwelling, post-modern, artsy slouch: she looks (and acts) about how you would approximate Lena Dunham’s character in Tiny Furniture to look and function in about thirty years, especially when she lays inertly around the house: silently, bonelessly wrapping herself in an affectionate embrace with the floor, the wall, and various furniture. While Exhibition certainly contains more lofty and sophisticated goals, the film also singlehandedly succeeds in bringing back planking.
It becomes unmistakably clear that D might not be able to function without the house: It’s the glue holding her marriage together, as well as a place of refuge so constant that she might as well be a shut-in. It’s when she begins to venture out — first at the sound of an urgent siren in a particularly surreal and anxiety-ridden scene, later to a Q&A with her artist husband that may be completely inside of her imagination — that things begin to take a turn for the psychedelic. The sense of removed, objective voyeurism of the first half of the film sometimes resembles Michael Haneke in its stagey, immobile framing and extended takes, but things take a sudden and head-scratching turn for the insular in the last act, with daydream sequences, haunting and bizarre images, lurid camera moves and unfettered access to D’s psychosexual longings. In a standout scene, D wraps herself in tape and engages in a suggestive bodily performance in front of a barely concealed window. These captivating visuals get under your skin and are difficult to shake. It’s hard to pinpoint an exact Lynchian breaking point in the film’s psyche, and in any case, comparisons to Lynch sell Hogg’s restraint short. Even when sex enters into Hogg’s work for the first time it’s uncompromisingly raw and, in the case of D participating in an extended masturbatory sequence, kind of achingly sad.
Exhibition succeeds as a successor to Hogg’s previous work in that it manages to distill and perfect her naturalistic sensibilities into a sleek and effortlessly watchable film, but it also expands on those previous movies by being more memorably visual and wonderfully weird. At the very least, I hold out hope that American audiences will turn up due to the internet’s sudden obsession with a certain famed superhero sibling who shows up as a real estate agent just long enough to lean his gorgeous face towards the camera (Hiddlestoners, consider it your mission to make Joanna Hogg an internationally renowned filmmaker), but most audience members won’t be able to shake the quiet spell that the film casts.