Stop worrying about me.
After two films centering upon characters that need to escape their insular lifestyles in order to discover what it is they truly desire, Joanna Hogg‘s Exhibition conversely traps D (Viv Albertine) and H (Liam Gillick) within their claustrophobic yet comfortable home so they must confront their past and present before deciding on their future. She does this by using a 1969 house built by commercial architect James Melvin as her canvas, the actors as her paint. Its modern design provides three levels of segmentation: a communal first floor, D’s artist studio on the second, and H’s office on the third with a spiral staircase connecting each down the middle. With massive windows covered by shutters and reflections, this couple is forever looking inwards and out simultaneously.
The building itself becomes a prism with which to gaze through and judge their life together. Its sliding walls can be moved at will and yet each keeps them in-place to isolate themselves from the other—a division they personally crave despite constantly interjecting themselves into the other’s space via an internal communication system on their phones. This physical barrier is only overshadowed by the psychological one built to close them off emotionally and/or intellectually. H wishes to engage with her artwork as a means to show his worth and yet he refuses to open himself up to be vulnerable. D wants so much to feel his love as more than routine that she’s perpetually checking in on his wellbeing while he simply leaves without saying a word.
Hogg compiles brief vignettes depicting their love, disconnect, worry, frustration, excitement, and futility. H has decided to sell the house because he believes their position as a childless family affords the ability to create a new abode to their unique tastes rather than finding themselves stuck. This place has served their needs well for eighteen years, but who knows what they might want years from now? Has its propensity for segmentation kept them at arm’s length? Has it fostered their careers at the detriment of their relationship? D wants to stay, her connection to the architecture strong enough to find her literally hugging walls and corners to reciprocate the love it gave her. But how much of that is the house and how much fear of the unknown?
There’s a connection regardless of the answer—history they hope stays intact long after they’re gone. D believes she feels the love of the previous owners and wants their own to match it for whatever family comes next. So they task their real estate agents (Tom Hiddleston and Harry Kershaw) to ensure all prospective buyers are inquiring for living quarters and not land to demolish. What’s ironic, though, is how the stagnation of their marriage has made it so the memories they’re creating right now aren’t necessarily ones that anyone should want to hold onto. Even their sex life is out of sync despite her current project being a highly sexualized performance piece since he can’t even bring himself to say she looks good in a dress.
Animosity and silence is what rules the day now with a palpable anger bubbling under the surface whenever they’re working and the other calls to say nothing of consequence. D and H try to spark a connection with neighbors, but they only want to discuss their children. They attempt to make peace with what’s happening to their home, but his quick temper and her surplus of empathy keep them at odds. And with so many nuanced moments of authentic annoyance and resentment, you have to wonder if their home as metaphor for their love is more about endings than new beginnings. They’re spinning their wheels professionally and personally as the stress of the sale consumes their emotions. Maybe a buyer will fix things or maybe it’s too late.
As such, Exhibition is very internalized. Sometimes we infer that what’s happening is a dream and other times reality proves just as poetically obtuse due to there being no concrete narrative purpose. This isn’t surprising since there’s no plot beyond letting D and H populate a broad situation, but it can feel disjointed as a result. I really liked the abstract introspection of this fact regardless of finding myself drifting off when events unfold that feel practically identical to previous ones with different aesthetic choices. While part of that repetition is the appeal because it does get to the truth of married life and its ebb and flow, you do have to be in the correct headspace to embrace the quiet tumult without a physical journey as complement.
Whether or not I had problems with the whole, however, nobody could ignore the success of its lead performances. I think Gillick is easy to diminish by comparison (the film being from D’s perspective helps), but he’s great as a husband who’s easy to loathe. We see his wanting to be part of his wife’s artistic process as the selfish act it is and can’t help but applaud those moments when she calls him out on his controlling nature (a sex scene where she just lies still is fantastic). And that’s why it’s even easier to give Albertine all the praise. She is as adept at wielding her frustrations as apologizing for his. We feel for her plight and appreciate what their home means to her beyond shelter.
In many ways Hogg has given these actors an exhibition space to pour out their hearts with uncensored candor. This is a carefully constructed performance piece about love’s continual metamorphic properties wherein that which brings joy one moment delivers pain the next. It’s a captivating exercise in that respect, but one in which the pieces did give me more pleasure than their combination. Those tiny exchanges like H lying facedown in the grass as D asks if she said something wrong or D going into full panic mode upon hearing sirens a minute after H leaves unannounced are so naturally resonant. The stylistic cinematography through transparent, translucent, and opaque walls only enhances Hogg’s portraiture more. And in the end we understand this is but one chapter of many.
courtesy of Kino Lorber