By Gary M. Kramer.
With the release of Joanna Hogg’s three features, Unrelated (2007), Archipelago (2010), and Exhibition (2013), it is imperative for cinephiles to discover her brilliance as a filmmaker.
Hogg’s films are remarkable for their perspicacity. The filmmaker captures the intimacies between family members and their environments in an unflinching manner. In a spectacular sequence in Unrelated, Hogg fixes her camera on various friends and family members as they wordlessly react to an argument that takes place off screen. This scene is a pivotal moment in the film, and later echoed in Archipelago. These episodes reveal the individual personalities; the silence under the shouting speaks volumes.
Unrelated opens as Anna (Kathryn Worth, in a terrific performance) arrives in Tuscany to visit her friend Verena (Mary Roscoe), her husband George (David Rintoul), and her family who are all on vacation. Anna has made this trip because she claims she “wants to be alone for a bit.” Entering the Tuscan manor is relaxing at first; Anna is plied with drink, and participates in various amusing games played by Verena’s sons Jack (Henry Lloyd-Hughes) and Oakley (Tom Hiddleston). She is seen, from time to time, phoning her partner Alex, and talking to him disdainfully. Hogg effectively films this by isolating Anna in the countryside to emphasize both her distance from Alex and her status as a family outsider.
Eventually, some conflicts arise. Verena scolds Anna for spending more time with her children than with her and her husband. When information comes to light about a car accident, tensions run high. Unrelated makes these mini-dramas, large and small, incredibly realistic, often discomfiting, but always fascinating. Viewers become absorbed in the action, which unfolds as if it were unscripted. The young characters’ nonchalance is as palpable as their desires as when they go skinny-dipping in the pool, or nick an expensive bottle of George’s wine.
Hogg’s dark, although elegant, comedy of manners charts the nature of the relationships, which are irrevocably changed over the course of the film. Verena’s heart-to-heart chats with Anna are fascinating because of how Verena cajoles her friend into confessing secrets. Their interaction suggests the fleeting nature of their friendship after so many years drifting apart. It’s a canny revelation, and one the audience makes before the characters do. The filmmaker and her marvelous cast allow for the characters to be incredibly transparent; viewers know them as well as they know each other. When one character caustically tells Oakley, “I know you’ll do what you want—that’s the problem with you,” it is neither surprising, nor undeserved.
How Hogg captures these extremely honest and intense exchanges is what makes her film so outstanding. An early scene has Anna and Oakley sitting quietly on a couch waiting for others to return. There is a real unspoken tension between them in this scene. It contains a hint of flirtation that may even be the motivation behind Anna buying some lingerie on a rare trip into town. A later scene has the pair speaking candidly about sex, relationships, marriage, and children—which further shifts the dynamic between them. As rifts develop between the various characters, they expose long simmering frustrations. Because viewers have witnessed and absorbed the same scenes as Anna, they will feel like both an outsider and insider at the same time. This duality is precisely what makes Unrelated so compelling, and credible.
Archipelago is not dissimilar to Unrelated, as it too features a British family on holiday, this time on the Isle of Tresco in the Scilly archipelago. Patricia (Kate Fahy) is the matriarch, who is there with her adult children, Cynthia (Lydia Leonard) and Edward (Tom Hiddleston), who is about to leave for Africa for eleven months. Patricia takes some art lessons from the dithering idiot Christopher (Christopher Baker), while Edward would apparently rather chat with Rose (Amy Lloyd), the hired cook, than his own family.
Hogg acutely captures the politeness and the tensions between the characters as this largely plotless film unfolds. One mini-drama occurs when Edward wants to ask Rose to join them for dinner, and Patricia and Cynthia bristle at the idea. Another dinner scene, set in an empty restaurant, is excruciating for the characters—but highly comical for viewers—as the patrons change tables several times before settling into a meal. When the food comes out, Cynthia decides, quite emphatically, that it is undercooked, and therefore “dangerous.” Her experience and reaction is an indication of her unhappiness, and her negativity percolates throughout the film. Patricia, who is seen making frequent calls to her absent husband, urging him to visit, is also unhappy. She is desperate for him to arrive, she confesses, because she “can’t stand it” anymore. The misery the characters feel is evident to viewers.
As she did in Unrelated, Hogg coolly observes these interactions, offering a detached perspective. Characters are often artfully framed in hallways, doorways, windows, and archways, to magnify the stifling, claustrophobic interiors. When they are outside, the wind whips through the characters, or spiky foliage or cold stones and cliffs surround them, symbolizing their prickly or hard natures.
What is particularly intriguing about Archipelago, however, is the use of silence and small talk. Christopher is loquacious, but he consistently says nothing, nattering on about chaos and abstraction. Patricia, in contrast, seethes silently throughout the film until she explodes in two phone calls to Will. One is heard on screen, the other—as in Unrelated—consists of a fight that takes place off-screen. Cynthia and Edward are seen in silent reaction to the argument, and viewers share their discomfort.
Hogg shrewdly mines most of her comedy from the lack of manners these upper-class folks have: Edward’s encounters with Rose are awkward and uncomfortable, and they belie the fact that he is ill-equipped to go teach Africans; Cynthia’s self-destructive, controlling behavior masks a much deeper despair; and Patricia loosens her stiff upper lip when she eventually reaches her breaking point. Is it not ironic that these characters are all on vacation?
In contrast, Exhibition is completely different, even as it shares the detached tone of Hogg’s previous films. While certainly a departure from Unrelated and Archipelago, Exhibition seems like a step forward in the evolution of Hogg’s career. Curiously, however, it is not as strong as her previous films, but that is not to say the film is without merit. As always, Hogg displays her penchant for using the environment to freight meaning on the characters’ lives. In this case, it is showcasing two artists D (Viviane Albertine) and H (Liam Gillick) in their sleek, modern London home. D is first seen lying on the windowsill, like a barnacle. Such is her attachment to the residence, which H wants to sell.
Exhibition mostly focuses on the co-dependent, passive-aggressive relationship between D and H. They use an intercom to communicate at times, and a typical exchange has D complaining she is cold, and H suggesting she put on a jumper, before he grudgingly agrees to stop what he is doing to go look at the boiler. While such exchanges—or one in which H asks D to come sit under his desk and provide sexual gratification—explain something about the characters’ relationship, little else is told about the couple. However, we do learn D is a performance artist who does strange arty things in her office in front of the window, sometimes with the blinds open.
Hogg films these scenes artfully, making the striped texture of the blinds echo against the house’s spiral staircase, the ventilator on the roof, and neighboring trees as well as D’s clothing. Hogg also loves the reflective visual surfaces of windows that illuminate patterns and shadows and light, using them to contextualize the characters, if not create a deeper meaning about them. Sound, too, is well utilized as a cacophony of noises—a woman having a discussion in her car, a motorcycle, a car horn, an alarm, a construction crane, a scaffolding being built, and other exterior sounds infiltrate and disrupt the couple’s silent lives and home.
Hogg’s visual and aural skills are in top form here, and she generates interesting performances from her actors as well. But somehow, unfortunately, Exhibition remains inscrutable. There are fantasy sequences, a dinner party where D fakes fainting to leave early, performance art pieces, and a nifty sequence where D elaborately masturbates in bed while H is asleep next to her. These moments, all individually wondrous, reveal something about D, but they do not cohere into a useful narrative. Ultimately, Exhibition feels more like a piece of performance art than a film.
Gary M. Kramer is the author of Independent Queer Cinema: Reviews and Interviews, and co-editor of the recently published Directory of World Cinema: Argentina.