Ostensibly, Joanna Hogg’s latest film, Exhibition, is her most architectural to date. Nearly all of the action takes place in a striking modernist home in London, and the focus on the air, the light, and the limits and liberties of the structure are woven into the narrative inextricably. In more than one scene, one half of the leading duo is seen literally embracing the elements of the home’s design. These acts reference performative object-affection movements like those of VALIE EXPORT, yet they operate in a literal and isolated way all the same. The duo are a middle-aged artist couple—D, a performance artist and H, an architect—who hang around their home most of the day working their flexible creative labor in their individual office confines, then at times convene for a meal, for sex, for a conversation. The house is lovely, airy—a piece—that the two clearly love to be in and be related to. However, their relationship is straining from time and an accumulation of unspoken or misunderstood grievances. They should leave this place to shake themselves out of it, start a new chapter, and find out what the next space will create. D, it seems, has begun to hide herself within this space, to become too comfortable in it and resistant to what’s outside. She has the space on her side, and H disrupts this unity. Moments of concentration in her office on the lower level are interrupted by the sound of his rolling chair moving across the floor above her. The buzzer on the speakerphone, which they use so as not to have to go up and down the stairs all the time to speak to each other, is especially screechy.
There’s a focus and a solemnity to Exhibition that puts these elements in greater light. In contrast, Hogg’s previous two features are ensemble pieces that center around subjective relations, especially the awkward dynamics of family and friendship over time. On the surface, their locations are only there to provide narrative details or serve as critical mise-en-scène. The Tuscan estate that houses the British vacationers in Unrelated serves the necessary background details sufficiently. Relaxed, sunny, palatial, and dressed in a history that doesn’t actually speak, or a vague gesture towards a nice idea of history, the place makes sense as a shorthand for the kind of tourism these middle class Brits engage in. Yet as the backdrop to protagonist Anna’s interior unraveling, it begins to look especially horrible in its placidity. The boredom she clearly feels playing banal, requisitely drunken after-dinner games with the adults in the candlelit dining room, and the awkwardness she exhibits when trying to relate to their kids, partying late in the moonlit pool, are amplified by the pure stateliness of this of this space. It facilitates such banality, which feels unfair given the history it contains, the way it sits in the landscape. When Anna finally unveils a secret she’s been keeping, it’s in a stale, plain hotel room she’s escaped to. Still, after all that time spent seeing her frittering among this reprehensible family in the postcard environment, it’s hard to take any of her real inner turmoil so seriously.
In Archipelago, an upper-middle-class family—two grown children, a mom, and the frequent mention of a delayed, never surfacing father—vacation in a seasonal home on the Isle of Scilly, following a tradition they’ve observed for years. The younger, Edward, has recently finished school and is about to depart to do volunteer work abroad—in “Africa,” of course. This decision is one catalyst for a swarm of mutual complaints, disagreements, and previously unspoken resentments between him, his brutally uptight sister, and their mostly passive mother. The cottage—stodgy, quaint, just a bit too small, with wall-to-wall carpeting, walls painted in muted greens, adorned with stock portraits of flowers, a puffy couch—intensifies their steadily percolating animosity. The space is forceful in its quaintness, and also too familiar. In combination with the moment-to-moment tension between the family, it makes the situation seem inescapable.
An easy read of Exhibition would state that it’s about how the arrangement of the built environment influences people at the intimate level. But in fact there’s so much of the space shown—every shot makes present some new aspect of the edificial detail—that it goes beyond this sort of architectural truism. The space becomes more of an animated element than a fact on which to push against, or into—which, yes, many critics have already observed in pretty boring ways: The whole “the house is a character routine.” Yet, it circles right back to human relations, though, if you keep thinking about it. This would seem to be a further development of the role of place in Hogg’s work, or perhaps an exhaustion of the idea. The interiors begin to take up too much space to the point that, when Exhibition ends, it’s with an upsetting jolt. But it is not H and D we feel bad for.