Notes from the LFF: Exhibition (Joanna Hogg, UK, 2013)

Blogpost, British cinema, Film reviews, London Film Festival 2013

The two most disappointing films that I saw at the London Film Festival were both British – namely Blackwood (Adam Wimpenny, UK, 2013) and Love Me Till Monday (Justin Hardy, UK, 2013).

(The former is a workaday, unremarkable horror – and sadly not, as one wag wittily put it upon leaving the film, a biopic of Richard Blackwood; the latter an extended episode of Hollyoaks. However, the former did make me want to see more of Sophia Myles, the latter more of Tim Plester, who played the only character with whom I might actually enjoy a conversation.)

It is fortunate, then, that there were The Selfish Giant (Clio Barnard, UK, 2013) and Exhibition to make things more interesting – even if, as per my earlier blog on it, I have some ‘philosophical’ reservations about The Selfish Giant.

(I am sad that I did not get to see films by the likes of Ben Rivers at this London Film Festival – but I hope to catch some interesting British cinema at a theatre like the ICA before long.)

To business: Exhibition is never going to be everyone’s cup of tea, but it continues Joanna Hogg’s unabashed efforts to lay bare the foibles of the British upper middle classes, as witnessed in both Unrelated (UK, 2007) – a major inspiration behind, ahem, my own latest film, Ur: The End of Civilisation in 90 Tableaux (UK/France, 2013) – and Archipelago (UK, 2010), the two films that gave to the world Tom Hiddelston, who returns here in a small role as a smarmy, unnamed estate agent.

Exhibition is about a couple, D (singer/songwriter Viv Albertine) and H (conceptual artist Liam Gillick), who live in a beautiful, somewhat art deco style house in an unidentified area of London. And the film is about property as much as anything else. D and H are planning on moving out of this house, because, one gets the sense, that while owning property is upheld as the very raison d’être/telos of working life, the property that we own (so the platitude goes) ends up owning us.

(Not that I am anywhere near getting on to the [London] property ladder, I should hasten to add. The rise in property prices since the late 1970s/early 1980s means that a generation of people have become – at least on paper – incredibly wealthy without effort, while those who have grown up since and who do not have property in their family face never owning property at all. One at times feels tempted to say that those pesky 1960s and 1970s lot, with all their free love nostalgia and ban the bomb bollocks ended up being the most greedy generation of them all.)

The house-owning-the-inhabitants motif is made most clear by the fact that H and D are grieving the loss of a child, or so it is obliquely suggested to us via fragments of dialogue, which means that neither, but D in particular, wants to or can leave the property.

Indeed, one wonders that the ‘lost child’ is a metaphor for a generation that will not have the property that these two have enjoyed – even if they are frustrated in their current digs and feel the need to sell up – hence the presence of the estate agents.

Not only are H and D trapped inside their own home, then, but they are also trapped inside their own rooms within that home. Their most common means of communication is via an intercom – and their exchanges are often terse, with D dreaming of sexual liaisons perhaps with H, but often on her own, and H calling down to chance his arm for the odd BJ and/or shag, should D be in the mood.

Their relationships become less with each other and more with their computers. In this way, Hogg works into her film the role that technology also plays in cordoning off films within their domestic space; first came the television to trap families in their home, then a television in every bedroom; now a computer in every room; an electronic device in every hand; and no one need ever speak directly to each other anymore; mediation is the only relationship that we have. It is a dysfunctional world at best.

The sense of self-willed enclosure is also class-based. In one hilarious scene, H tells a man who is awaiting a delivery and who has parked in their driveway that he ought to put a fence up in front of his parking spot, together with a big sign saying “Fuck Off”, to keep people like him out – the implication being that he is a ‘working class oik’ who does not belong on the hallowed ground of the upper middle classes.

And this is all reaffirmed by Hogg’s masterful use of the soundtrack, which uses echoes, alarms, rumbles and general sounds from the streets and from the rest of the house to convey a sense of claustrophobia and fear of the outside world.

This technique is reminiscent of Rosemary’s Baby (Roman Polanski, USA, 1968), and one gets the sense, somehow, that issues of diabolical insemination, lost children, hellish homes and the like are all equally at work here, in this observational piece about the British bourgeoisie as they are in Polanski’s critique of 1960s New Yorkers.

And yet, for all of the enclosure, this is a film that is, finally, about ‘exhibition’. Perhaps the exhibition of enclosure, of closed mindedness. But the dream to get out into the open – perhaps via art? D is an artist, after all – all that is otherwise contained in our repressive and repressed society.

(Perhaps this makes Hogg’s film somehow anti-cinematic – because maybe cinema itself is paradoxical in the fact that its predominant mode of exhibition is to have viewers hide away in a little dark cube.)

One final observation: I only gleaned this from the end credits, but the family that we see move into the D/H house at the end is, from the names of the actors, Asian in origin. A nod to the way in which much new housing in London is being bought up at great rates by Asian, specifically rich Chinese, buyers.

There is no xenophobia intended (nor, hopefully, taken) here. Simply perhaps that the castle that is the British home is now not sturdy enough, and those Britons that do fear contact with, and contamination from, others (with H and D among their number?) are going to have to hide elsewhere, further afield, in order to avoid this fate.

A restrained, elliptical film. Hogg remains one of the most distinctive voices in British cinema. (And, given the film’s 5.9 rating on IMDb, the most interesting work on that website continues to score between 5.5 and 6.8.)

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