Joanna Hogg’s “Exhibition” closes with a dedication to architect James Melvin, an appropriate coda whether or not viewers recognize the name. Hogg’s third feature magnifies the relationship between people and the spaces they live in with a keen eye for the way the two tend to blend together. At its center, middle aged couple H (conceptual artist Liam Gillick) and performance artist D (Viv Albertine, former guitarist for British punk band The Slits) prepare to move out of their spacious London home and cope with the impact of the move on every facet of their daily life. While H enjoys a high profile career in the art world, D struggles with a slew of identity crises brought on by the move. Hogg explores her character’s confusions by turning the home into a physical manifestation of her mindset.
The movie develops a hypnotic appeal through a succession of fragmentary moments: D, first seen in her home office quietly sketching a self-portrait, communicates with her husband through an intercom connected to another part of the house, the first indication of a burgeoning disconnect between them. In subsequent scenes, Hogg lingers in the mundanity of their routines, capturing the couple lazily writhing about in bed and engaged in aimless passive-aggressive chatter about unimportant issues. Gradually, D’s sense of dislocation grows clearer: Afraid of change, she’s both unhappy in the moment and unwilling to let go of it.
Hogg tracks D’s insecurities with a series of mounting images interspersed with scenes from the couple’s life: She hugs the walls and rocks in her garden as if fighting against the forward momentum of life itself. “The house recorded this long, happy marriage,” she laments to a friend, as if nothing can be the same without it. The house itself retains a haunted feel, as Hogg’s camera observes empty hallways while listening in on the couple’s off-screen conversations. These eerie moments inject Hogg’s suburban portrait with an ominous element on par with similar turf explored in Michael Haneke’s movies, yet Hogg never takes the material to such macabre depths while exploring the emotional substance of feeling disconnected from the world.
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Instead, “Exhibition” infuses its cerebral exposition with a strong dose of humanity. While it seems as though their marriage is on the rocks, the duo never engage in melodramatic spats. Instead, D’s time spent on her own illuminates her alienation even as she never puts it into words. Capricious but never quite twee, her solo antics are a simultaneously odd and believable representation of the way behavior illuminates deep thoughts.
It’s easy enough to view the character in the tradition of Miranda July’s comically sad antics, only far stranger; D hovers in a dreamlike condition through a much bigger world. Leaving the house, she wanders the street and comes across a street performer playing along to a comically jovial cover of “Sing a Song of Sixpence” before dropping a coin in his jar, illustrating her tentative step outside the safety zone of her settled existence. Later, in a fascinating demonstration of her ongoing anxiousness, she dashes outside her home in her underwear at the sound of a siren for no good reason.
But D’s conundrum provides only one substantial piece of the larger exploration of relationships that defines its central themes. While the lead actors, making their onscreen debuts, maintain a definite credible edge, they also exude a statuesque quality as they go about their lives defined by a precise choice to avoid settling down and starting a family — a decision eating away at D moment by moment. In one of a few flashes of levity, she pretends to faint after getting bored at a dinner party in which the other couple in attendance won’t stop talking about her children. Ironically, though, even without following traditional pathways in their cultivation of a family unit, D and H are slaves to restrictions like everyone else. Explaining as much during one scene while discussing his another artist’s work, H says that the “psychological aspects of the domestic are normally hard to reach.” In other words, we can see the frustrations just beyond their reach.
At times, the movie’s rigid formalism and self-involved characters make it hard to invest in the drama. But over time, that becomes part of the point. Their identifies are so closely related to their stationary world that without their home they have no foundation on which to define their lives. “Exhibition” hovers in that state of uncertainty with ghostly unease.
A version of this review ran during the 2013 Locarno Film Festival. “Exhibition” opens in New York on Friday.