British filmmaker Joanna Hogg’s focus on listless bourgeois ennui is a surprisingly refreshing tack to her contemporaries; forgoing a literal, gritty depiction of working class woes, Hogg opts instead for an opaque reading of the middle-class that holds implicit trust in the audience’s discerning spectatorship and appreciation for a carefully considered mise-en-scène. In the same way that Antonioni would move Italian cinema away from its neorealist tendencies in the 1960s and infuse it with a slow-burn, modernist inspection of the bourgeoisie’s anxieties, Hogg similarly intends to gently prod at the psyche of the British middle class, an area that in the past decade has scarcely been examined by home-grown directors or afforded much critical attention. A great shame, as it can often be an ugly place to visit.
Hogg’s exceptional 2010 film Archipelago followed a middle-class family on their holiday to Tresco; its title is a telling prognosis of the family’s fragmented positioning, inhabiting a shared environment yet harbouring discrete motives and desires. Hogg’s framing amplified the discomfort through extended wide takes, allowing naturalistic dialogue to feel its way through awkward silences, interjecting, overlapping and conflicting. In Hogg’s world – as real as ours – silence and empty space are privileged as much as whatever comes to occupy that space, and we are invited to consider the relation of each person’s body within and beyond the frame, and just how these compositions complement their mind’s interior.
In follow-up Exhibition, Hogg shrinks the proverbial battlefield. We’re removed from the Isles of Scilly and placed into the indisputable symptom of West London, the expanse of a shoreline substituted for an oppressive apartment, a nuclear family shrunken down to a mere pair of co-inhabitants. Known simply as D (Viv Albertine) and H (Liam Gillick), this couple are on the cusp of selling their apartment and starting afresh. There’s a palpable air of malcontent swimming around these two, and their story’s placement in the UK’s congested capital – quite unlike the extrapolated family of Archipelago – allows for Hogg to further pepper their peace with the world outside their bubble, with diegetic city sounds seeping into each scene, and the windowed borders of the apartment displaying the vulnerable bodies either through the glass or by its reflections. D is steadily prying herself from the glue that has had her stuck to H for so long (her clothes continually change, he stays in the same black t-shirt), and as she begins exploring her body with the silent encouragement of her enormous office window, the film’s title becomes ever more appropriate.
An entire floor is often filmed with a pillar or staircase either centered or thereabouts, bending the shot so that we see around the corners of the apartment, somehow increasing both its depth and oppressiveness. Hogg’s attention to her characters is impressive; in one scene, D’s bed is pictured as having by its side both a telephone and a small statue of the Buddha, a symbol of tranquility and its opposite effectively cancelling each other out. Ostensibly irrelevant tangents, such as H’s confrontation with a man parking his car in the couple’s own private space, serve to illuminate the colour inside the characters. But even these dialogue exchanges are not wholly the key to understanding their motivations. Hogg trusts us to consider not solely what these two say to one another, but what they will not say; far more crucial is what each are thinking, through the small adjustments in their daily rituals, and how these transient motions are considered within the context of their rigid environment.
It could perhaps be argued that the film’s greatest weakness lies, paradoxically, in its repeated precedence on the glassy surfaces that enable the enactment of its title. Hogg isn’t complacent enough to simply rest on the same principle for too long, though. When D attends an imaginary critical debate and sees herself and H air their differences in front of a live audience – the most contentious ‘exhibition yet’ – the film’s themes further open up. Much like Archipelago, with its guest artist character deciphering the family’s doldrums, we are reminded once more of how works of art are truly analogous to life, crucial in navigating its many and varied pitfalls. Hogg’s latest is one such revelation.