A title at the end reveals that Joanna Hogg’s third feature, Exhibition, is dedicated to the recently-late architect James Melvin, which should come as no surprise since the film is as much a portrait of the sleek, modernist Kensington townhouse in which it is almost exclusively set, as of the mildly dysfunctional marriage that resides therein.
Hogg employs a shooting style as self-consciously sparse and striking as the house itself, all clean lines, barely-there reflections in the windows, with figures sliced through by venetian blinds or obscured by exterior foliage in emptily suggestive fashion, and short snippets of scenes intended to accrue into something like a portrait of the protagonists’ relationship.
Both are artists. D (ex-Slit Viv Albertine) seems to draw (not a lot) and dabble in performance, though most of the time is withdrawn, unable to get down to work, and sexually withholding; H (conceptual artist Liam Gillick) is apparently successful at fiddling with architectural figures on his Mac, but is hurt that she wants him more for his companionship than his cleverness. They communicate a great deal by intercom (in different offices on different floors), but can share an intimate moment reading in bed (he aloud to her, a description the complete opposite of her character, from Steppenwolf – literary bona fides are confirmed by Cocteau on his nightstand and Rimbaud on hers). Love and closeness remain – this is not a fundamentally ruined union – but H seems unable to draw D out of her shell, and D seems in a permanent state of fearful malaise, retreating from both work and husband into a masturbatory world of her own.
Both (debutant) leads do a decent job, Gillick in particular avoiding the pitfalls of pretension and patronage. Although it is essentially her film, Albertine has a harder time with a script that gives little clue to her inner life and troubles, closing us off from her as she closes herself off from all around her. How or indeed whether she will step up to the exhibition opportunity offered to her at the film’s close is anyone’s guess. Perhaps her sadness is caused solely by the imminent sale of the house, their home for 17 years, put on the market per H”s (deliberately?) pat explanation, “because it’s time”. D seems to have little to say on the subject, beyond a comment that the previous occupants’ long marriage is “in the walls” and the film’s only really moving moment is late on when she lays around hugging walls and tables.
It’s easy to describe both the house and the film as frigid and soulless, which was presumably the intention of neither architect. Hogg’s approach, however, leaches the life out of her characters and their story – another potentially moving moment, when the couple clasp hands at the sounds off of the slick estate agent (Tom Hiddleston) dealing with an attentive surveyor, is merely mechanical. This is the sort of film where one hopes mischievously for a violent home invasion at the end to liven things up. As well-controlled as it all is, it’s hard to give a fig about form or content.
AFI FEST festival film page: Exhibition
Director: Joanna Hogg
Screenwriter: Joanna Hogg
Producer: Gayle Griffiths
Cinematographer: Ed Rutherford
Editor: Helle Le Fevre
Production Designer: Stéphane Collonge
Cast: Viv Albertine, Liam Gillick, Tom Hiddleston