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film fatales #56: exhibition (joanna hogg, 2013)

This is my first Joanna Hogg film, and so I can't tell if its idiosyncrasies are typical of her work. Exhibition is a bit different, in any event. It's in the traditional of movies where "nothing happens" ... I'd say it's one of the leaders of that genre. Hogg tells the story of a middle-aged couple who have decided to sell their house after 18 years of living in it. He is an architect named "H" (at least I think he's an architect, we don't get a lot of detail in that regard), she is a performance artist named "D". Their house is suitably modernist, and is the setting for almost the entire movie. Tom Hiddleston has a couple of scenes as a realtor which amount to a cameo ... the relationship between D and H is pretty much the whole movie.

Some people seem to think of D and H's marriage as falling apart, but I didn't get that. They are in a rut, and they occasionally try to break through that feeling, but for the most part, they reminded me of my wife and I, and we just celebrated our 46th anniversary without falling apart. Something is missing from their lives, just like something is missing from the house, which is exquisite yet somehow barren. D and H are childless, and again, some think this is important, but I thought they were just two people who didn't want kids.

Exhibition is rather chilly, and perhaps some viewers will think that proves the couple are in trouble. It is true that the most intense sex scene in the film comes when D masturbates in bed as H sleeps beside her ... OK, maybe they are in trouble.

The leads, Viv Albertine and Liam Gillick, are not actors ... this was the only movie as actor for each. Gillick is a conceptual artist, while Albertine has done many things, beginning with her time in the seminal punk band The Slits. In her wonderful memoir, Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys, Albertine writes about the making of Exhibition. She and Joanna Hogg were longtime friends, and Hogg asked her to star in the movie. Albertine said yes instantly, then had second thoughts after meeting Gillick. But she (and Gillick) stuck it out.

What I’m not confident about is my body, or my face. Joanna doesn’t want me to wear any makeup, and here’s the camera inches from my face (and thighs), god knows what kind of lens Ed Rutherford, the director of photography, is using. I have absolutely no control over what I look like. I feel like Blanche Dubois in A Streetcar Named Desire, when Stanley Kowalski grabs her face and holds it under a bare light bulb to see how old she really is (Vivien Leigh said that was the most painful scene she had ever filmed). On the first day of shooting I’m acutely aware of my age and the rarity of a movie camera lingering over an older woman’s face in films. Usually it’s a young woman’s face the camera loves, it almost caresses her: isn’t she beautiful, isn’t she perfect....

I couldn’t do the sex scenes if I had a boyfriend, it would be a betrayal. ... I haven’t been touched by a man for over a year, this is so strange, a man I don’t know touching me intimately, with another group of men I don’t know watching me, the microphone dangling over our heads and the blank shark eye of the camera lens recording it all. I’m half appalled and half aroused. ... By the time we get to the last sex scene, towards the end of the six-week shoot, I have to make a huge effort to get into it. I’m exhausted, all wrung out, I’ve given every last drop of myself. ...

One of the last scenes we shoot takes place in a country house. The room is cold and completely dark, there’s no bed, just a mattress in the middle of the floor. Joanna tells Liam and me to curl up together under a blanket. I put my head on Liam’s shoulder, he wraps his arm around me. I start sobbing uncontrollably. Joanna asks me what she should do, I say, ‘Keep filming, I’m not going to be able to stop.’ It’s the position we’re in that’s affected me so deeply. Just how Husband and I used to snuggle up together when we were happy. I cry continuously for the next four hours, the first time I’ve cried since the break-up of my marriage.

The visual style of the film, with shots through blinds and reflections everywhere, is a way of making the house into a character. It certainly has a bigger and more important role than does Tom Hiddleston.

Just because why not, here's a video of The Slits in 1979:

(Explanation of the Film Fatales Series. I'm going to have to update this soon.)

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