Film Review: Joanna Hogg’s “Exhibition”

Joanna Hogg’s third feature “Exhibition” has a title with multiple meanings, which neatly reflects the layers of interpretation possible of what we see in this fascinating, formally audacious work. As other commentators have noted, “Exhibition” is in many ways the “Scenes of a Marriage” of today. And although Hogg’s cinematic style differs greatly from Bergman’s classic, an equal sense of artistic rigor is quite evident.

“Exhibition” is, stylistically, simultaneously a bit of a departure and a further refinement of the carefully composed characteristics of her previous two features “Unrelated” (2007) and “Archipelago” (2010). Those films were penetrating and often satirical depictions of upper-middle class characters vacationing abroad, featuring ensemble casts. Hogg’s latest brings her home to London, with a drama set mostly in a domestic space, and concentrating on two characters.

The two principal figures in “Exhibition” are D (Viv Albertine, of the punk band The Slits), a multi-media performance artist, and her husband H (Turner Prize-nominated artist Liam Gillick), whose involvement in the arts is less defined, at least to the viewer, but it seems to have something to do with architecture. This turns out to be quite appropriate for both the film’s setting and basic scenario, since the most fascinating aspect of “Exhibition” is how wedded its home setting is to its visual structures and images, as well as its characters’ psychological states.

The film is bracketed with shots of D stretched on the floor, her body conforming to the walls and windows of the house, as if she has become an anthropomorphized piece of furniture; this idea is literalized near the conclusion. This neatly indicates how closely her sense of security, and indeed her very identity, has been bound to her domestic space.

However, at the outset, we learn that the couple is in the process of selling the house that they have lived and worked in for quite a long time, for reasons that are never quite clear. They appear to be comfortably well-off, and don’t seem to need the money. Nevertheless, they extensively plan their move, having consultations with real estate agents (one played by Tom Hiddleston, who starred in Hogg’s previous films). D’s greatest concern is that the house not be sold to developers who will tear it down and build new property there, as the house has a very unique design and was made by a famous architect. H, though he agrees, seems rather less anxious about what will happen to the house when they’re gone.

This time of transition exposes tensions between the couple, as well as D’s feelings of fear, anxiety, and growing aversion to the world outside. D and H do their work in separate spaces, in rooms on different floors of the house. They communicate briefly by intercom, but otherwise they live separate lives by day. H complains to D that she is unwilling to discuss her work with him; D responds that she feels very protective of her work and the process of its creation, and doesn’t want to subject it to his possible criticisms. Late in the film, D asks H by intercom if he still loves her, an indication of how unsettled she has become by the changes that are happening to them.

Another important aspect of this couple’s relationship, and one which represents the most significant difference between “Exhibition” and Hogg’s previous work, is how sexuality figures in. The couple initially seems to be not on the same page when it comes to their intimate relations. In one scene, which comes across as a reversal of gender dynamics, D wants fast, straight-to-the-point sex, while H wishes to prolong their experience. D, in fact, seems rather more comfortable expressing her sexuality as a solo act; her performance artist work seems to mostly consist of dressing herself in sheer, revealing outfits, while she poses in front of a large picture window in full view of the street below. Late in the film, D puts on high heels, covers herself with oil and masturbates while H sleeps next to her.

As things progress, and the couple goes through a process of separation and reconciliation, Hogg’s presentation compellingly charts the shifting emotional with a spare austerity, often light on dialog, one which contrasts the unpredictable outside world with the geometrically ordered spaces of the house. Hogg’s approach sometimes teeters on the edge of tedium, and at times seems almost a dare and an experiment as to how much narrative information and backstory can be eliminated while still retaining our interest in these characters. Nevertheless, “Exhibition” is an absorbing and smartly designed work, and successfully showcases Hogg as a unique voice, and quite an unusual one in the context of British cinema.

“Exhibition” is now playing at the Elinor Bunin Monroe Film Center in New York for a two-week theatrical run. For more information, and to purchase tickets, visit the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s website.