Housing Unrest

in 66th Locarno International Film Festival

by Carmen Gray

Sandwiched as it is between Cannes and Venice with the competitive scramble for films that that entails, Locarno Film Festival makes new discoveries the focus of its festival. British director Joanna Hogg was one of the more established, recognizable names to premiere her work in the International Competition. While Exhibition — her third feature — came away without awards, it was one of the highlights most deserving of attention.

Like Archipelago (2010), the film is a domestic drama about privileged characters. This focus put some off her previous film in an England accustomed to channeling its class guilt through the working-class woes of gritty social realism. But while the emotionally conflicted holiday-goers of Archipelago were all very dislikeable personalities and as such tough to care about, Exhibition creates a much more intriguing psychological landscape. Non-actors have been cast — Viv Albertine, of ’70s punk band The Slits, and Turner-nominated conceptual artist Liam Gillick — to play artist couple D and H, and bring to the roles a believable presence. Their marriage is under considerable strain, with D resenting the pressure the more career-established H puts on her to verbalise her performance art process to him, fearing his critical judgment and wishing to safeguard a private place for her own expression. Their bedroom dynamic has lost its spontaneity and spark; meanwhile D fantasises sexually about a man who shows genuine interest in her work. Unapologetically childless, their relationship and its subtle power-plays forms an intriguing, cynical and darkly witty portrait of modern love amid wider concerns and ambitions that is challenging and profoundly feminist in its outlook.

These tensions play out mainly in the couple’s home, where they work in separate offices connected (with almost Lynchian humour) by intercom. What is perhaps most interesting about the film is its inventive use of physical space, with Hogg braving much greater playful experimentation than she has before. The film is dedicated to the now-deceased modernist architect James Melvin, and the house it’s set in — the couple’s sanctuary, or perhaps albatross — is one that he designed. D and H are in the process of selling it, which has caused their anxieties to surface. D is reluctant to let the home go, believing it — as she explains to a friend over Skype — filled with the spiritual residue of the former owner’s happy marriage.

The stark home (not a “family” home, but one which suits them, as their more conventional-living, parenting friends almost disdainfully point out) is shot as a haunting presence, the camera moving over its steel spiral staircase or cerise sliding-doors in unpeopled frames. D is often shown coiled around parts of the house, seemingly trying to absorb the location’s history by a strange osmosis. Effective sound design makes vaguely ominous the muffled tread of footsteps or the opening of sliding doors in other parts of the house, and police sirens out on the streets. Disquiet surrounds the couple as they refer to “what happened before”, some trauma that hangs in the recesses of their time together but is never elucidated. The way in which spatial architecture is linked to urban psychological horror brings to mind Brazilian director Kleber Mendonca Filho’s festival success of last year and Rotterdam FIPRESCI-winner Neighboring Sounds (O Som ao Redor) and its paranoia-laced portrait of a gated community in Recife.

There is no clear resolution to the couple’s issues nor any sudden revelation as to their root. Nevertheless, time moves on — new residents, a family with small children, seen through the vast glass windowpane in all their bustle — are settling in, the imperfect dwellers for this perfect space. Or maybe, rather, it’s that we project perfection onto the unrealizable and impossible space of fantasy, while the reality we inhabit is never utopian, and under constant change. Exhibition is in this way also a performance; a mirror for us to reflect on our own desires.

Carmen Gray