Shot on location in a West London modernist house, British writer/director Joanna Hogg takes what could have been an ordinary slice out of an middle-class married couple’s life, and transforms it into an alienating yet truly captivating picture.
Exhibition paints a portrait of artists and married couple D and H, in the days leading up to the sale of their home. We peer at them almost as if through a one-way mirror, with frequent static sequence shots, composed to complement John Melvin’s extraordinary architectural designs. The characters are placed on display, and we are free to scrutinize not only D’s relationship with her husband, but also her relationship with the house to which she has grown so attached over the years.
Both leads are played by non-professional actors. Viv Abertine, the former guitarist of The Slits, plays D, while conceptual artist Liam Gillick fills the role of H. Their performances are convincing, yet their subdued demeanor adds to the self-reflexive nature of the film. Their way of communicating seems to hang in an unusual balance between realism and surrealism, as if their marriage is always at risk of suffering from an unspoken crisis. They use an intercom system to communicate with one another in the house, and when they are together, the tense silences between their lines are just as prominent as the dialogue itself. Their stale sex life, too, hints at the gradual estrangement between the two.
Contrary to what some of the films’ critics have thought, however, Joanna Hogg sees it as a good marriage. In a recent radio interview with the BBC, she notes that alienation “is the reality of a couple that has been together for twenty years: not every moment is going to be a good one.” Like last year’s Before Midnight, is Exhibition thus meant to confront (or even comfort) us with the imperfect reality of married life?
The film’s most striking stylistic trait may be Hogg’s use of atmospheric sound. Rather than seamlessly stitching together scenes, each is strikingly separated from each of the others, be it from the sound of sliding doors, chairs, boilers, planes, or construction workers; each scene and each room in the house has its own particular, unique, sound atmosphere. Exhibition is almost completely devoid of music, and as a result the soundscape of the house almost becomes a musical score in itself. Just a few minutes into the film, the subtlest sounds become crystal clear. In addition to concentrating on what we see, we quickly understand the narrative importance of what we hear from off screen. When we’re with D in her work space our thoughts are often elsewhere – why is H always scraping his chair over the floor above us, or why is he pacing up and down the spiral staircase so restlessly? Hogg draws our attention to the sounds that we would normally shut out, in an environment in which she is authoritatively in control. In Exhibition there is no such thing as silence.
Though the sounds of the house’s water boiler might be recognizable, they could not feel more alien. No matter how naturalistic the soundscape of D’s and H’s house may be, the atmosphere remains alienating. And as the film progresses, it leaves the naturalistic world of sound behind and evolves into a far more surreal world. As D takes a solitary stroll through the streets of London, a visual array of memories gives us insight into her feelings for H. Next she is sitting in a nearby theatre, watching herself onstage, having a conversation with her husband about their communication problems. As we move more and more into D’s mind, we begin to get a sense of some sort of emotional disturbance. But Hogg gives us no definitive resolution, withholding any more specific details on either of the characters’ pasts.
Exhibition emphasizes what seems to be a bad moment in a couple’s life. Perhaps there is something wrong with D that we don’t know about. Or perhaps it is simply a meditation on the heavy emotional burden of selling something dear to you, and how this can put a strain on even your most comfortable and reliable relationships. Either way, Joanna Hogg’s third feature is a fascinating piece, if only because it prompted me on my way back from the cinema to notice the subtle, familiar sounds that had before always evaded my consciousness.