Of all the different mental states I wrestled with while watching Joanna Hogg’s latest film Exhibition,
There’s plenty about Exhibition that will test an audience. By its patient, fragmentary exposure of the minutiae of the isolated lives of two cohabiting artists, it manages to ball up all the tension of impotent liberal bourgeois domesticity and leave it right there in your lap, with nary a hint of how to rid yourself of it. One option is to simply stand up, let it fall, and walk out of the cinema.
But don’t, because Exhibition is the work of a skilled auteur who can really hold her nerve, and the two leads are played daringly and with great self-reflexivity. Liam Gillick and Viv Albertine are deeply convincing as a couple whose long-term relationship seems to rest on a volatile fault line of individual privacy and weary spousal familiarity. While I’m sure they’ve been cast because in real life they are, respectively, an artist and a musician, the strength of their performances here can’t be attributed merely to a presumed identification between actor and character. It goes beyond that.
Albertine is especially impressive. Her character’s career seems to be the less mobile of the two, and her screen presence (as a performance artist, no less) is alternately clumsy, sexy, vulnerable, and reserved. Her life and work, having years ago collided and now impossible to separate, seem to require her to find new physical perspectives from which to think, act, and be. And yet, by the brutal irony of Hogg’s editing, these small pieces of physical improvisation are rendered comic – Albertine is only a middle-aged woman posing to herself, in her own closely guarded room. Gillick is no better: always clicking away at his laptop, the two fire off banal, touching and desperate questions to each other over the house intercom. Hogg never makes clear where exactly each of the studios is relative to the other. Most of their conversations in the film’s early stages are awkward negotiations, about the intricacies of each other’s work as well as the methodical steps entailed in selling the property, their home of fifteen years, with the help of a pair of sickeningly buy viagra online boots affluent estate agents.
Hogg’s previous film, Archipelago, was generally well received but criticised from some quarters for being middle class to a fault, and I suspect that Exhibition will not win over any of those doubters. But that would be unfair. For a film that’s focused so intently upon a self-absorbed artist couple, it does its best to avoid the kind of close-up techniques commonly used to invite sympathy. Instead it holds us at bay from the action using mid-shots, making the house feel vacant and exposed, like something out of a catalogue. We do get to see a lot of intimate personal moments, sure, but from far enough away that the characters often seem like specimens we’re studying, in their habitat of open-plan rooms, reflected by huge glass panes on every wall against dark London evenings.
And yet, these two lead characters are not totally devoid of appeal. Their arrogance and indulgence is counterbalanced by vulnerability, discomfort, complex neuroses about sexuality and self- and professional esteem. All these perceptible nuances are evidence of a pair of fine acting performances.
Joanna Hogg is now spoken of as part of a current crop of outstanding British filmmakers, alongside Lynne Ramsay, Clio Barnard and Andrea Arnold, but the working class people and environments of which Barnard and Arnold have made their most urgent and powerful films are almost entirely absent from Exhibition’s urbanities. However, if Hogg’s detractors were right about her work being exclusively middle class, why is the life of these characters so clearly and repeatedly exposed as being an affluent bubble? It comes across as possessive and precious, and all the while I felt I was being invited to internally scream, “Where is everyone else? Where is the world outside? Where even is the audience for their art?” Hogg induces a kind of sympathy withdrawal in the viewer. I can see that this may be too frustrating to endure for many, but I remain impressed because the effect is so successfully orchestrated.
Eventually a shocking stylistic rupture rewards the audience’s patience as the film moves from coolly cropped realism into a psychological, liminal, almost Fellini-esque domain, which I will not spoil by describing any further. This was the moment that earned a genuine jaw-drop and eyebrow-raise response from me, recasting the film in a different light and revealing it to be a work of real conviction despite all its challenges. Exhibition deserves praise for being a film about the lives and means of artists that doesn’t rarefy the ends of Art itself. Impressive and uncomfortable viewing.
Words: David Hamilton-Smith