It’s one of movieland’s minor mysteries that “Exhibition,” the third feature from British director Joanna Hogg, is the first to have been snapped up immediately for U.S. distribution: it is by some distance her least accessible movie, and features the smallest, cameo-level role from Tom Hiddleston, the bona-fide star whom Hogg is credited with discovering. And we can’t help but think it’s a shame, as her previous two films “Unrelated” and “Archipelago” are brilliantly chilly, incisive surgeries performed on the living patient that is the middle class British family, that are in themselves extremely uncompromising in terms of focus and ambivalence. But in “Exhibition” she narrows that focus so drastically that it feels like we’re at maximum zoom, looking more intently at the space between things, than the things themselves. It’s a very brave and unapologetically cerebral approach to have taken, but it often feels like there’s just too little there, too few life rings thrown to the average, non-art-student viewer, to keep us engaged.
Part of the reason for this is milieu. Both “Unrelated” and “Archipelago” were set during vacations, and something of the paradoxically freeing but confining thrown-together-ness of such a setting lends itself to the elegant, detached curiosity of Hogg’s camera. And as dispassionate as those films may be, it’s a scenario that most of us can readily relate to: the pressure-cooker environment of nearly grown-up or adult children sharing space with the parents from whom they are trying to assert their independence. But “Exhibition” is set, very firmly, at home, in an architect-designed modernist London house occupied by a long-married artist couple D (Viv Albertine, guitarist for punk band The Slits) and H (conceptual artist Liam Gillick), and their daily routine and their relationship to their surroundings is so very specific and different from “ordinary” life, that it can feel overly rarefied. The atmosphere between the two of them in that sculpted house is so heavy with semantics and artistic endeavor and intellectualization that it seems unlikely the air is breathable, and with the vast majority of the film focussing only on them, and especially on her, it’s only rarely that we see them in context of their interactions with the “real” world outside the front door. These scenes, involving a visiting estate agent (Hiddleston) or a visit to a neighbor’s for dinner, work terrifically well, like a quick blast of oxygen into an airless room, and in many ways we felt that the issues Hogg wants to raise, about the nature of the artistic sensibility, of self-examined lives, of the roles women play in relationships, and of the mutual interaction between people and their home environments, are communicated best by counterpoint in these brief segments.
As far as narrative goes, the plot is easy to outline: H is a relatively well-known and respected artist, married to D, who seems less confident in her work, and certainly is uncomfortable talking to him about it for fear he’ll shoot it down. They’ve lived in an unusually designed house — lots of poured concrete industrial-looking walls, floor-to-ceiling windows and metal spiral staircases — for eighteen years, but have decided, for no hugely urgent reason, to sell up and move on. D is going through what almost seems like a mourning period for the house, which seems to symbolize a lot more than simply their dwelling; the detail that the childless couple have lived there for 18 years is telling. It almost suggests that the house itself is their child and, now that it’s reached maturity it’s time for them to move on to a new phase of their lives too. Relations between them are occasionally loving, and occasionally brutally cold, hinting at the long history they share but about which we only gain tiny splinters of information; eventually they both seem to come to terms with leaving the house, just as D lands a promising opportunity in the form of a gallery show.
But for the majority of the running time we are alone with D, as she works at her art which often involves fashioning her own body into contorted, sexualized poses (we are never going to look at the hole in the top of our Ikea step-stool in the same light again, for example). She seems lonely, frequently, listening to the sounds of H’s footsteps or the dull roar of his office chair as it rolls across the floor upstairs, occasionally phoning him to chat briefly, but otherwise isolated from him in her own inviolate space, or stretching herself along the window sills and walls of her beloved house. Albertine, a non-professional actor, is certainly courageous when it comes to the the physicality of the role, especially its art, masturbation and sex scenes, but at the same time there is a slight self-consciousness to her performance, a kind of reluctance to meet the camera’s gaze, that gives a raw edge to some of the more intimate sequences that we’re not too sure is intentional. Coupled with the thicket of “artfulness” that builds up here (this is art about a pair of artists playing artists) its effect is again to deny us access to the deeper recesses of the film.
There is beauty here, and exquisite craft in both the pictures and the minutely designed soundscape, and there are some truly chewy ideas thrown up about the porosity of the boundary between public and private that would have lent terrific, atmospheric texture to a film in which we were more invested. But there is little connection to the characters, and where previous films from Hogg have partly delighted because of the tangled web of hinted-at history that exists between multiple characters, here we simply have the thin cord joining H to D, and their alienating lifestyle that fails to draw us in. Hogg is a filmmaker we’re very interested to see develop, and it is to her credit that she seems to be testing the boundaries of her style, unwilling to simply repeat herself, and unwilling to pander. But the sparseness of “Exhibition” ultimately feels like paucity, and we can only hope that in future, while she determinedly turns her back on the coastline to head into further uncharted waters, she throws us enough lifelines to bring us along with her too. [C]