Somewhere in England’s capital, a pair of married, middle-aged artists spend their days seeking creative inspiration inside their modernist home, a vertical palace of cold minimalism in which D (Viv Albertine) and her husband H (Liam Gillick) communicate largely via interhouse telecom. Though she appears bored, he’s too blind in his artistic and domestic contentment to notice, too concerned with his own work to see that his marriage has reached a stalemate. She finds more satisfaction in onanism, which she keeps secret from her pretentious, passively domineering husband, who removes the clothes from his wife during their alone time, as she dutifully lays on their bed, primed for a joyless fuck.
The idea that a setting is its own “character” is bandied around all too often, but in Exhibition the setting is as integral as the script – the house’s unique spiral staircases and sliding doors couldn’t be removed from the story, and D and H’s house is as plain and functional as their marriage. This artiste’s household is their castle, a fortress barring the literally crumbling outside world, where all around police sirens wail and streets are dug up and built upon again. Theirs is a stark cold steel abode, offering a comforting safety that’s paradoxically become suffocating to the couple entombed within. There are passing mentions to a damaging incident that gives some explanation to D’s apparent wariness of the outdoors, but like so much of the film it’s an implication left for the viewer to expound upon.
It’s uncertain what writer-director Joanna Hogg’s film is even ‘about’ – like Hogg’s two previous movies, the main concern is the complexities of family life, but the roundabout plot stops at ‘a married couple decide to sell their home.’ That Hogg holds your attention regardless is testament to her skill as a director, specializing in creating lived-in environments and characters. With this film, she strides confidently forward – giving us two main characters who say very little, and luckily we can spend almost two hours happily just observing their idiosyncrasies. It’s not made explicit what the respective ‘art’ of D and H even is, but their position as ‘others’ off the rat race grid gives us all we need to know about their mindset, which is distant and detached from regular folk.
Exhibition uses the otherness of D and H to explore another favourite theme of Hogg’s: class, and the sometimes nauseating privilege afforded by wealth. In one scene, H berates a van driver for momentarily parking on his property, blaring out for all to hear that he should build a fence around his property with a sign that reads, “fuck off.” He wants to keep the barbarians away from his luxurious grounds, and to keep himself and D cut off from the rest of society. Although, we soon come to realize D is making furtive steps to reconnect: there’s a wonderful sequence in which D walks up to a London street performer blowing fire out of a trombone, non-diegetic music – a warming old show tune – playing over the soundtrack for the first time. She just stands and watches, marvelling at the trick, and perhaps the simplicity of her own happiness in this moment.
Of course, this could be a dream, heralding in as it does a surreal stretch where D interviews H on-stage about his aloofness, followed by a slow motion lovemaking scene that sees some passion re-enter their relationship. A yearning for a return to simple pleasures, away from the dry intellectual interests of H, could explain D’s efforts to reawaken her own sexuality throughout the film, gradually turning herself into a half naked art project bound in tape and glow-in-the-dark plastics. It’s something to alleviate her boredom, but it’s also a way of removing that disconnect she feels between herself and the rest of the world – there she stands, as she finally unveils her ‘project,’ naked at the window of her home, allowing the world to see her at her most vulnerable and exposed.
Exhibition is chilly, until its final subtly redemptive and liberated moments, and less a humanist drama than Hogg’s other efforts. It’s for that reason that it doesn’t quite top Hogg’s unfathomably moving debut, Unrelated. Still, the film is a riveting exercise in creation via the most limited means – set almost exclusively in that stifling household, with hardly any characters other than D and H interrupting the solitude (though Tom Hiddleston, a Hogg regular, makes fleeting appearances as a smarmy estate agent). It’s remarkable that Hogg has made something so substantial out of so little.
The signature docu-style is still present and very much correct in Exhibition – it’s Hogg’s key connection with British cinema, in particular social realism, though her stories focus conversely on the UK’s upper and middle classes instead – but Hogg has made a leap in visual proficiency, developing a psychological mirror of her characters through her intelligent shot choices. The film on the whole feels more streamlined than her other features, as though she’s starting to whittle her cinema into a perfect point. Imagine if next time the director upped the scope and approached a story on a scale as big as her talent. Still, something suggests that she’s at home tackling those big subjects via these minute tales.
With Exhibition, Joanna Hogg advances her impressive directing style with a visually striking - if decidedly chilly - look at a couple reaching stalemate in their stifling London home.