Thursday, April 24, 2014

Film Review: Joanna Hogg's Exhibition (2013)

If, as the saying goes, home is where the heart is, then in Exhibition it is also sanctuary to the mind, body and soul. Uncommonly attuned to gradations between cognitive existence and physical experience, British director Joanna Hogg’s third feature turns aesthetic determinism into a narrative framework by which action directly corresponds with the surrounding environment. The film’s simple story, concerning a husband and wife in the process of selling their home of many years, is rendered complex by an internal compositional logic which reflects tremors among the couple and their modernist surroundings alike. In Exhibition, architecture translates as the physical, psychological and emotional infrastructure of its characters—one seemingly cannot advance without altering the material identity of the other.

The film opens and closes in curiously similar fashion, with the character of the wife, known only as D (played by Viv Albertine of British post-punk legends the Slits), contorting herself around inanimate constructions throughout the house. Her husband, H (Liam Gillick), seems the more pragmatic of the two, accommodating brokers (including one played by Tom Hiddleston) and working diligently as a conceptual artist in his home office. When not folding herself around various objects, D, also an artist, spends her time working out performance pieces which invariably devolve into either exhibitionist displays for her neighbours or exercises in personal pleasure. She’s frustrated—sexually, professionally and emotionally. She shuts down H’s intimate advances only to satisfy herself as he sleeps quietly by her side. Her life appears to be one elaborate artistic display, except there’s an unsettling hollowness to her gestures that suggests an unspoken longing.

Hogg doesn’t disclose much regarding the motivation of her characters. She instead reflects the dynamic (or lack thereof) of the central relationship in formal shorthand. Consistently static, askew and carefully diagrammed, her compositions carry a simultaneously elusive and expressive quality. In Hogg’s hands, every surface is both a literal and figurative mirror; space is expanded in many instances by reflections in glass, marble, and aluminum façades. More is said in Hogg’s impressively precise mise-en-scène than in any of the dialogue, which is as sparse as the film’s interiors. Few recent films have approached matters of anatomical and psychological integrity as democratically as Exhibition.

But what of all this aesthetic dedication—to what ends is Hogg working here? Formally, Exhibition has much in common with works of classic formalism, particularly Rossellini’s films with Ingrid Bergman in the early 1950s (Stromboli, Europe '51, Journey to Italy) and Antonioni’s output during his structuralist period (La Notte, L’Eclisse), but it lacks the gravity acquired by those films as they subjected their characters to volatile new environments. Exhibition is thus perhaps more reminiscent of the ongoing Greek New Wave, in which films such as Attenberg, Alps and Miss Violence utilise compositional austerity to actualise the severe internal makeup of their characters. Unlike many of those films, however, Exhibition is able to locate a vital human warmth in its precision. The consequences of their impending transition may be left just out of the audience’s purview, but the characters in Exhibition, like all of Hogg’s output thus far, leave one intensely curious for more. [LWL]

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