It’s rare enough to see films centered around middle-aged women and even more rare, perhaps, to find a film that delves into the inner life of a middle-aged artist who happens to be a woman. Joanna Hogg’s Exhibition not only depicts precisely that, but also examines, with detached elegance, the subtle fissuring and coming apart of a loving relationship, even as it simultaneously acts not just as a feminist or a political manifesto, but as an artist’s manifesto as well.
The protagonists, simply identified as D (played by Viv Albertine, a punk guitarist in real life) and H (played by Liam Gillick, a conceptual artist in real life), are a well-off and happily married artist couple in London, though it’s subtly made clear that H is the more successful one, while D, though she identifies with being an artist, doesn’t have too much exhibited work under her belt. Another character in the film is perhaps the architecturally postmodern house they inhabit, but more on that later. Both D and H seem to be in their fifties and H has decided that the house must be sold, that if they didn’t make the move now, they never would. House-proud D is afraid of letting go of the familiar and the loved, and is in fact seen several times physically wrapped around the walls and paraphernalia of the house in what seem like sad and loving embraces. But it’s not just the house that D has to learn to let go of. As the film makes it clear, it is patriarchy, with the institution of marriage as its chief agent, that is holding her back as an artist, and D has to learn to let go of more than one loved thing in order to realize her artistic potential.
One of the tools that Hogg uses to underline the impending falling apart of the marriage is the sound design. In several instances, gently flowing and generally happy circumstances are punctured with sudden, piercing sounds, laying bare the cracks that lie beneath the happy marriage. For instance, D chats online with her friend, saying the house has seen a long and happy marriage. What follows immediately is the shrill piercing of neighborhood construction machines that suggests that all is not right if you dig deeper. Another time, a quiet walk the couple takes is accompanied by the unbearably jarring noise of a toy car in the vicinity, like a gash in their marriage. But perhaps the most obtrusive moments are when D is quietly working in her study and one can hear the wheels of H’s office chair swiveling around on the floor above. His interruptions on her work are not just limited to the noises his chair makes. His footsteps loom and echo all the time outside D’s study, and he makes frequent calls to her on the intercom, disturbing her while she’s at work. She repeatedly gives in to his demands, reluctantly, like the dysfunctional sex scene in which she is unwilling to be groped by him. Another time she chooses caring for her husband over her work, when he walks out in a huff, and she desperately chases after him, still in her underwear, fearing for his safety. Perhaps it’s befitting that her artistic work is about bondage.
One could even suggest that the central theme of the film is encroachment. The encroachment of H over D’s personal space or its variation, the oppressive encroachment of patriarchy on D’s artistic life: After a night’s misadventure, H, now in his bathtub, asks D to not bother about him and go back to her work. She returns to her ‘work’ except that it’s the household work she returns to and not her actual work. In fact the term ‘work’ is loaded in the film. What does D mean when H interrupts on the intercom (constantly) and she says, “I’m working”? Sometimes she’s in her study, applying makeup, or seemingly playing out sexual fantasies. What separates an artist’s life from her work, when the deeply intimate and personal is later exhibited publicly? Is it encroachment when the artist’s private life is exhibited to the public? The artist then stands out as a singularly vulnerable individual. Another example of encroachment is the parking of a car in H’s parking space by a working class man. The boundaries of the upper middle class private haven have been broken into and H is livid. Hogg makes this theme of encroachment overt, again, with sound: several jarring exterior noises suddenly puncturing the quiet and gentle ambience. But she also expresses this visually with frequent shots of the large house windows reflecting both the interior and the exterior of the house in the same frame. It often takes time to figure out whether one is located inside or outside the house. Although a fairly common photographic conceit, Hogg uses it intentionally to suggest the ambiguity of the boundaries of the inner and the outer, of the private and the public.
This visual metaphor also has to do with a certain idea of the cinema itself. The large windows of the house on which everything is reflected not only act like gallery windows through which D exhibits her performance, but also remind one of cinema screens on which figures are projected. The house itself, as Hogg has explained in interviews, is a house of projections, like a cinema house, where H too, but especially D, project their thoughts, fantasies and feelings. The first thing that comes to one’s mind, in this context, is Tarkovsky’s Solaris. And indeed, some of the foliage around the house seems to have been shot in a way reminiscent of certain shots in Solaris. Hogg, however, says she doesn’t like to reference other filmmakers. Nevertheless, another film that kept coming to my mind while watching Exhibitionwas Hitchcock’s Vertigo, not so much as a direct homage but perhaps as an ironic or even as a parodic allusion.
One of the first things one notices in the film is the house’s spiral staircase, a trope now practically synonymous in film history with Vertigo. The staircase penetrates into the floor above in a phallic fashion. But unlike Hitchcock’s masculine fantasy of projections and fantasies, Exhibition is a woman’s film, and characters often emerge from the gap above the spiral staircase as if emerging from a womb. Besides the physical location of the staircase, there are scenes that are reminiscent of suspenseful thriller or horror scenes in Hitchcock’s films, with the classic trope of a woman alone in a big house. D is all alone, and the scenes, of her getting startled by every noise and checking cupboards are less suspenseful and more comedic, like a parodic riff on Hitchcock or the genre of horror and psychological thrillers. D’s anxieties, expressed superbly with the sound design, are projections in her mind, and though she loves the house, she feels threatened by it as well. And this seems like a metaphor for her marital relationship. It’s a home that has seen a happy marriage but one where happiness was predicated on the unquestionable hierarchy.
It is befitting then, that the house, or its replica in the form of a cake, is eventually demolished. The demolished cake signals to the impending demolition of the marriage. Of course, we are only given a sense of the ending of the marriage, never the literal crash. But the cake is an important suggestion, and Hogg holds the camera sufficiently long on the destroyed cake for it to carry many portentous meanings. Like the cutting of the cake, is the impending exhibition too going to be “a celebration?” as H wonders. No, as D says, it’s a “goodbye”, and not just to the house, but to a gently stifling relationship.
But structurally speaking, the demolition of the house-cake is not the end of the film, even though thematically, this may seem so. The film seems to play more or less in a linear fashion in the first two acts, but the third act enters the realm of the surreal and the non linear. Or is the logical end when H finally chances upon, from outside the house and through the gigantic windows, D’s work – her performance piece of sexual bondage for an invisible audience – and the two make eye contact? Or let’s say, she returns his gaze. Will it ever be the same, from then on? Will he be the supportive husband he has ostensibly been so far? After getting a big offer to exhibit, D calls her husband but doesn’t give him the news. Instead, she asks him if he still loves her. This says everything about their marriage. Talking of being supportive, when D finally does break the news about the big exhibition offer to H, he can’t hide his surprise. He seems happy, and yes, encouraging, but also a bit incredulous. As the more exhibited artist, he also thinks it’s his prerogative to mansplain to his wife some obvious things she knows already. The problem is, there are no easy binaries either. H, for all his kindly patronizing and his representation of patriarchy, is a loving husband, and it’s difficult to hate him because he is not a villain in any sense. D must let go of the marriage if she is to realize her potential as an artist, but the impending end of the marriage then, seems sad and tragic, not a jubilant feminist victory.
Apart from the ambiguity of what the actual end is, the film, especially in the last act, is dotted with surreal elements. Dreams and memories mix with what is really happening, and give a sense of the artist’s subconscious imagination. Towards the end, D, standing in her kitchen, looks outside the window and spots an old man trying to cross the street with a baby in his arms. Suddenly a gang of bikers whooshes by. Had the bikers been women I would have inferred a direct reference to Marzieh Meshkini’s surrealist, feminist masterwork The Day I Became a Woman. The caption for this film would likely be, ‘The Day the Woman Became an Artist’ – echoing perhaps a predicament faced by many women artists across the globe. Hogg herself has acknowledged that she desired to be a mother but had she been one, perhaps she wouldn’t have been making films. Whether the shot was referencing the other film or not, the bikers’ suddenly whooshing by hints that the option of having a child is now part of the surreal or the fantastical, and no longer possible. D’s time to have a child is up (the old man) but the longing is still present. But then, to realize her dream as an artist, she would almost inevitably have to give up her dream of having children.
Several other surreal or ambiguous and somewhat unexplained elements dot the film: the hugging of rocks, a memory of being a bride in the house, and so on. Some shots of the foliage around the house later seem to have been shot on infrared film, lending a mystical or ethereal quality to them. The trees and the foliage, the Nature,, seem looming, even menacing, in the beginning. At times, Nature and the house seem to be the audience for D’s private performance art. Towards the end, Nature is fragile, mystical and beautiful. All of these seem like projections in D’s mind. Nature, or the house, are what one makes of them. In fact one of the couple’s friends remarks once that the house is an artists’ house and not meant for children. But the house, later sold to a family with three children, transforms seamlessly into a bright looking family home. Hogg’s suggestion seems to be that space or architecture is what you make of it, or what you project onto it.
Joanna Hogg’s previous film Archipelago has a character that is an artist and at one point seems to articulate the reflections of the actual artist, the author of the film, Hogg herself. On being asked while painting the scenery if he would prefer to respond to it in “many different ways” or if he would stick to an idea or a theme, he says, “I would start with observing it in a very general sense, not committing to the particulars – the little rocks and waves” (the rocks and waves not just of the scenery but the ups and downs of the characters in the film), then continues, “I would go for the overall color sequences, the keynotes, which would produce the basic mood.” The sequence ends with him talking about how the colors are symbolic of a place. It seems like Hogg is practically stating the theme or her artistic intention for the viewer to chew on retrospectively, and Archipelagoitself seems to live up to this artistic premise of producing a basic mood. Hogg takes this stating of the artistic intention one step further in Exhibition. H reflects that he doesn’t like to explain himself to his audience. “It’s not my job to classify myself or describe to people what species I am part of.” Perhaps it is Hogg expressing herself through H. This is not too surprising, given the experimentation that happens in the film, especially its traversing across genres, from the psychological thriller, to the realist drama to the non-linear and surrealistic aspects. Later, D, the more vulnerable artist, and less arrogant of the two, says about her exhibition, that she “will improvise, make mistakes and take wrong turns, and it will all be there for everyone to see.” This seems like another articulation on Hogg’s part herself about her stylistically ambivalent work. Although, the experimentation with the form, the ambiguity, and in short, the wrong or right turns, as one might perceive them, actually make the film special.
Divya Sachar is a Delhi based writer and filmmaker.