New Dawn Fades
Joanna Hogg made one of the best films of 2010, a calm but ill wind called Archipelago, but hardly anyone outside the UK ever heard about it, let alone saw it. This despite a star turn from Tom Hiddleston who'd broken through the monotony of The Avengers with his hammy scene-steaming turn. In Archipelago Hogg's keen, cool gaze focused on a family coming apart the seems in the most reserved way imaginable, her compositions turning the upper class in dioramas ready for display in a modern anthropology museum. That brute honesty and careful, precise blocking returns, along with Hiddleston in a small but choice role, in Exhibition, Hogg's newest feature, and it's been augmented with abstraction and theatricality. The two artists at the film's center are always on display, for each other and the world outside, and slowly, thrillingly, the walls between performance and reality begin crumbling.
Viviane Albertine, former guitarist for artrockers The Slits, and the conceptual painter/sculptor Liam Gillick, who could have a long career reading audiobooks in his damp Aylesbury tenor if the whole art thing ever dries up, play a married couple who've become strangers to each other. They seem to occupy different levels of their James Melvin-designed modernist cube of a house, communicating largely through an intercom system, their conversations filled with as much blank space as their walls. The one thing they share is that they constantly try to outrun each other to avoid the other's scrutiny. Albertine's D doesn't want to share her work with Gillick's H, for fear that he'll disapprove or exact some psychological toll on it. H similarly doesn't share anything about himself that D can't already see on his face. He never talks about his emotions, but his dissatisfaction and detachment are never less than evident. The two recently decided to sell the house (Hiddleston is their broker, and as usual he’s far more captivating playing normal than he is as a god in the Marvel movies) and though it's never discussed it's obvious that D is not ready to give it up. While they prepare to sell, they go about their work, fail conspicuously at intimacy and try to avoid each other on the big spiral staircase that runs through their house.
Compared to Unrelated, Hogg’s debut, and Archipelago, the Antonioni-influenced Exhibition is a much more concentrated dose of its director’s proclivities. Hogg, like Ben Wheatley and Clio Barnard, emerged a few years ago with a clear vision of modern life in the UK and has jut gotten better at articulating herself. The tension that once haunted her characters here moves from palpable to excruciating. Surfaces once impeccable are now immaculate, and the emotions they conceal are three times as large in order to mimic the energy expelled keeping them at bay. By choosing to make her lead character a female artist, Hogg has allowed herself a degree of psychological acuity that leads deeper into a character’s mind than she’s ever gone before. D is the first totally subjective character in Hogg’s canon and we see things that plainly are the work of, if not her imagination, then her subconscious. There’s a degree of guess work involved in collating D’s flights of fancy into her life, not to mention Hogg’s typically unblinking realism, and it makes the film all the richer an experience. They could be memories, or actualizations of D’s thoughts on her less than ideal marriage, or they could be brainstorming sessions for her newest installation, but they’re definitely one more piece of the performance piece that she’s constantly engaged in. The question is whether she’s on a stage or in a cage and will the silence in the house ever break?
Exhibition rarely leaves D and H’s residence, but it does frequently take to the streets and look in on her. The big windows become a way for her to externalize her dissatisfaction, the loud, indifferent streets below her unwilling audience. In one awe-inspiring scene she undresses in front of them, the blinds her only protection, until she uses them as part of her dance. It’s nerve-wracking at first but It becomes comic and tragic when it’s clear that no one is going to look up and see her giving away her image for free. Dramatic irony is a new addition to Hogg’s kitbag and she uses it like an old master. H doesn’t want to perform for D, whom she considers her harshest critic (Gillick’s stilted, half-hearted praise of her ideas stings worse than if he’d dismissed her work outright), yet she’s always on display for an equally difficult crowd. The house she can’t bring herself to surrender forces her to put her most vulnerable self in front of people. It even accidentally gives her husband a front row seat to her creative process, which, like her sexuality, is nothing she never would have given willingly. H routinely secrets himself away from his wife and when he steps out, she wants to investigate his office but seems aware that she’s being watched. The scene shouldn’t be half as tense as it is, their marriage and relatively even tempers would preclude anything rash happening, but this deep into D’s worldview, it’s almost terrifying. H’s passive criticism and active withdrawal create a barrier between the two lovers, but it’s only as thick as a window and a set of blinds. In Exhibition, life is an endless rehearsal for a piece that will never be perfected.