Michael Pattison

With what is now a trademark formal precision – a balance, that is, between naturalism and symbolism – the opening image of Joanna Hogg’s third feature Exhibition primes us on multiple levels as to what themes we might expect from the film as a whole. In it, a woman who we will come to know only as D lies on a windowsill, her back half turned to us as she faces the world outside. Situated in a frame divided down its centre into two halves, D lies as if in some indefinite suspension between interior and exterior, between private space and public space, between inhibition and its eponymous opposite. Is D’s bodily stasis a sign of contentment, or does she long for greener grass?

Following Unrelated (2008) and Archipelago (2010), two excellent dramas about familial and social conflict in holiday homes abroad, Hogg limits herself here to the emotional confines of a marriage in decline and the physical confines of the house the couple has lived in for two decades. Unsurprisingly, Hogg utilises space so that it emerges as a character in itself, conditioning its inhabitants’ frustrations and expressing a dormant hurt on their behalf. Situated in west London, the location is a real home, designed and lived in by the late architect James Melvin, of whom Hogg was a friend. Since the home was sold following Melvin’s death in 2012, Exhibition celebrates its unique setting and laments the fact the director no longer knows its owners.

D, a performance artist, is played by Viv Albertine, former lead singer in 1970s punk quartet The Slits. Her husband, referred to only as H, is played by conceptual artist Liam Gillick. Both are acting in a film for the first time. Remarkably, not only is there a palpable sense here that both characters have lived together for years, but each performer also achieves a convincing nuance. As it progresses, the film demands from its actors a physical commitment; as D’s portrait becomes increasingly intimate, Albertine in particular must abandon all inhibition. Entering what could be seen as a daringly suggestive dreamscape, Hogg has her leading actress don high heels and sexy underwear to oil herself and masturbate while Gillick sleeps beside her at night. At a crucial moment, we cut from a wide shot of the duo to a closer shot focusing solely on D: her private space is separated, cut off. Similarly, just as the lives of these characters unfold in fragments, the house itself is presented in fixed, disparate compositions; the interrelation between its many rooms remains unclear.

Like Michael Haneke’s similarly restricted Amour (2012), Exhibition has limitations. There is little seen of the outside world, and the social frissons that ran through Unrelated and Archipelago are as a result less prevalent. When we do venture outside, Hogg alternates between alarm, friction and surrealism. In one scene, D is reduced to hysteria in the hallway of her own home when H mentions and motions to go for a walk late at night, while another moment on that threshold between private property and public space is charged with class collision, when H responds with obstinate anger to someone who has parked his car in front of their driveway. In a contrasting flourish later in the film, D’s nocturnal stroll through Trafalgar Square culminates in an eerily becalming encounter with a tuba player, from whose instrument emanates fire.

But Hogg is a too detailed and astute artist not to evoke her characters’ social status in other ways. Working again with Archipelago’s cinematographer Ed Rutherford, she frequently frames scenes through reflective windowpanes, emphasising her characters’ more inward sensibilities while simultaneously capturing a leafy suburban London outside. Jovan Ajder’s superlative sound design, meanwhile, assists Hogg’s textured snapshot of petty bourgeois privilege – boredom implied by afternoon silences, security by safely distanced police sirens. One sonic contrast in particular summarises the film’s ongoing tension between one’s delusions of happiness and harsher truths. It occurs when D speaks to a friend over Skype, and tells in whimsical fashion that she can feel the love of previous inhabitants within the walls of the house. The subsequent cut, to a digger ploughing noisily through a concrete pavement, is a violent rupture that might suggest some scornful counterargument to D’s utopia.

Follow Michael on Twitter: @m_pattison

'Exhibition' is out now. 

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