We’re that used to some form of noise soundtracking our lives nowadays that abject silence can knock us straight off our feet. This is the reason Stranger by the Lake was far creepier than the monotonously loud mainstream horror movies we seem to get plagued with, and is also the reason Joanna Hogg’s Exhibition packs a punch in its menacing solitude. It isn’t a horror movie, or even a thriller. As a matter of fact, I don’t really know what it is, except for maybe some distant shadow of a drama. But it’s eerily quiet.
Exhibition centres around the relationship of a married couple, both artists, living in a stylish, spacious London home that they’re in talks to sell. Their reasons for moving are never openly discussed, but are obvious: neither of them are happy, and their relationship – if you can call it that – has long become stale. D (Viv Albertine) maintains a bored tone of voice throughout, often looking downtrodden and generally laid about lethargically. Even when she and her husband H (Liam Gillick) start to get what should be called ‘intimate,’ there’s no passion at play, merely him undressing her as she lays there like a sack of potatoes, responding to his advances by saying “Just do it.” “Don’t you wanna play first?” asks H, to which she flatly replies: “Nope.”
That the couple address each other by their initials underscores the amount of personality they see fit to exhibit – very little – but their ennui doesn’t exactly transfer to the audience; what we get instead is a horrible sense of absence, as though something vital is missing in their lives. It’s probably their lack of children, as their dinner party friends seem much happier as parents, although another explanation could be that it’s the fact that they both spend so much time in the house, which is made to feel both claustrophobic and agoraphobic, its largeness undermined by the rigid framing which emphasises the enclosure of the walls.
As such, no matter what either of the characters are doing – sat together, or busy with work – they’re always presented as completely lonely, isolated, even lost. Their short, apathetic conversations make them seem like long-term work colleagues who never really got along as opposed to a couple who could have ever conceivably been called ‘happily married’. It’s a full forty minutes until we hear an “I love you” from H, which is not returned by D, although later she phones him (yes, they converse via phone in their own house) and asks if he still loves her. He doesn’t say the words himself, merely “of course,” which is met by “just checking, talk to you later.”
The sliver of energy D possesses seems to go into preventing herself from dying of boredom. Unable to sit still, she fidgets and writhes in her seat, looking round aimlessly for things to keep her occupied. Her depression is commonly distressing to watch, and for the first three quarters there are no signs of happiness to be witnessed at all, yet the film somehow keeps your attention, focusing on these almost morbidly prosaic non-events that seem to be killing its characters through their sheer mundaneness. At times, its viewer captivation is aided to the occasional, subtly jolting unexplained shot that seems to have no place whatsoever in the narrative, as though the whole thing is through D’s perspective and she’s that sapped of life that her subconscious is playing hell up.
Ultimately, Exhibition seems drawn from the same line of thread as Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Katzelmacher, a film about bored people that manages to be strangely hypnotising. Perhaps it’s also just a much less dramatic Inside Llewyn Davis, a film that was depressing because the title character’s downward spiral didn’t even have the decency to be all that disastrous. But ultimately, it’s an entirely unique vision, a work of pure art from a directress whose previous credits – which include EastEnders and Casualty – could not be more deceiving. This is the first Joanna Hogg film I’ve ever seen, and even by the end of this week, it won’t be the last.
Exhibition was written and directed by Joanna Hogg and stars Viv Albertine, Liam Gillick and Tom Hiddleston. It lasts for 104 minutes and is a production of BBC Films, Rooks Nest Entertainment and the Wild Horses Film Company. Distributed in the UK on DVD and Blu-ray by Artificial Eye. Originally released in 2014.