Space is a great concern in Joanna Hogg’s Exhibition, in terms that are equal parts physical, psychological and, when looking at the film itself, structural. It tells the story of a couple, D (Viv Albertine) and H (Liam Gillick), both artists living in a beautiful, curious London home, itself a mini Grand Design. Slotted into bustling suburbia, their three storey oasis may appear calm on the surface – all minimalist angles, floor-to-ceiling windows and novelty spiral staircases – but Hogg intends to patiently show us the most understated of tempests.
H seems intent on selling their idiosyncratic home (which doubles up as studio space for both of them). D is reluctant. Quite what has motivated H into shaking up their lives is unclear, yet this difference between them underscores a wider rift in their relationship; a growing distance that may have been triggered by some past trauma that befell D (there is at least one oblique reference to this), or may simply be that, after 18 years, they’ve grown apart as people.
Sexual fumblings between the two constantly seem to see them at cross-purposes. An overly self-conscious set of scenes dotted throughout the picture that communicate most fully the different directions that they seem to be heading in. D seems to find intimate encounters with H unpleasant to contemplate; she goes limp or unresponsive until he gives up on the prospect of spending his time with “just a body”.
Yet in private D appears to be configuring her sexuality into an evolving performance art, like an emerging butterfly. And in one breathlessly suspenseful scene, we are allowed to bear witness to D pleasuring herself next to the sleeping H, going through the motions of a set of rituals that, one suspects, have been made specific through practice and repetition.
All the while Hogg’s camera hangs back, passively, coldly documenting scenes from precisely framed vantage points. Her camera rarely moves, and often holds for great lengths of time, allowing us to study and appreciate the exquisitely considered angles that have been selected for us. This quiet, almost clinical gaze recalls the subtle intensity of both Steve McQueen’s films before 12 Years A Slave and much of Sofia Coppola’s thoughtfully presented output.
This leads to an awareness of space in the film. Exhibition feels like exactly that; an art installation which we are invited to peruse through. One imagines Hogg frustrated at having to work within the confines of a running time at all, and that in her mind there is a version of this film that hangs suspended in the air for us to approach at our own pace. That entity does not exist, so as a compromise we have been given this one, and each scene is given as much time as possible to breathe.
This makes for, initially, a difficult and patience-testing experience, as the viewer resets their body clock to the slower rhythms of Hogg’s film. Like watching the least sensationalist fly-on-the-wall documentary ever conceived, Exhibition starts by presenting us moments from within D and H’s home, regardless of whether any ‘drama’ is taking place or not. What she is doing is setting us to this different tempo – and it’s a necessary process. What it feels like at the time is simply listlessness. Exhibition will weed out those not ready for it right from the start.
Work with it, however, and there is much to enjoy and appreciate here, and a dramatic arc does unfold. On a purely aesthetic level, the film is undeniably beautiful, measured, exacting to a fault. But once we come to know and understand D and H – particularly D – then we also start investing in their situation. In particular, Exhibition seems to articulate those moments alone when we don’t quite feel ready to share with the world; when we’re in the process of internal rediscovery.
One sequence in the first half hour sees D left at home alone in the evening, and her underlying fear of the world outside permeating this sanctuary of hers becomes bristlingly evident. The threatening sounds of the outside world – construction work, sirens, unknown voices – bubble up in the dark like a passing procession. We understand D’s attachment to her home. For better or worse it has become a vital point of safety for her. For a few chilling moments, Exhibition threatens to turn into an art house home-invasion movie. A You’re Next for Sight & Sound readers.
Because of the time and subtlety invested here, broader dramatic moments come dangerously close to feeling less truthful. For instance one scene in which D fakes collapsing in order to save them from an interminable dinner party. Likewise, later in the picture is a curious scene in which D watches herself and H interview one another at some post-performance Q&A. These moments are almost jarring as they step out of the film’s more formal presentation elsewhere, yet Hogg gets away with it on both counts, and, in retrospect, both moments add much-needed colour and shape to proceedings.
With such a relatively thin overarching story and with star name Tom Hiddleston’s appearances in the film transpiring to be relatively minor, casual cinemagoers may find Exhibition too sparse for their tastes. This is unquestionably cinema as art, intended as a discussion piece. So patient is Hogg’s eye that anyone clockwatching is going to find themselves completely at sea (it’s very hard to tell how far through Exhibition you are). Nevertheless, engage with it and there are some rich rewards here. You’ll find yourself investigating your own thoughts on these spaces – physical, psychological and structural – and importantly Hogg will have reminded you that introspective art and enjoyment need not be mutually exclusive.