One month to the day after the Brattle’s screening of Robert Wise’s THE HAUNTING, Boston boasts another rendezvous with, or on, a spiral staircase in Joanna Hogg’s new film, the differently (but maybe not all that differently) chilling EXHIBITION, which opens a week-long run tonight at the Museum of Fine Arts.
From her first feature film, UNRELATED (2007), through this latest, Hogg, who began her career directing television programs for the BBC, has maintained a persistent, not to say relentless, focus on depicting malaise among the English upper-middle class. The titles she gives them (2010’s ARCHIPELAGO rounds out the three) accurately telegraph her intention, scrupulously carried out, to rather clinically, pitilessly expose the isolation and alienation of her characters — spouses, groups of friends, family members — whose material needs are well met but whose other needs (spiritual? emotional? the uncertainty is part of the problem) go begging. Imagine a very English, very contemporary Antonioni, stripped of glamor and in quietly desperate combat with banality.
But with each film another preoccupation has come closer to the center of Hogg’s concerns: the uses of art, and the particular angst and consolation attendant upon being an artist. Exhibition #1 in EXHIBITION, usually on display for no audience except herself (and us), is D, a performance artist played by Viviane Albertine, who lives alone (er, with her husband, H (Liam Gillick)) in an eccentrically high-modern, two-floor London townhouse. H, also an artist, and a more successful one, spends each day working upstairs by the bedroom while D, underneath the staircase, works, or dithers, or daydreams her wayward way towards composing a new performance piece, or else towards finding the ideal position in which to masturbate.
After 18 years of living childlessly in the same space, communicating as needed (to schedule sex, for instance) via an intercom between the floors, H is pushing strongly to sell. Despite her reservations, D acquiesces, and the process of separation begins. But how much separation, and of what exactly? From here EXHIBITION develops into a uniquely unsettled chamber piece — unsettled in terms of genre, and in terms of the attitude we are expected to take towards these characters. It is a testament to Hogg’s skill as a director that she can subtly highlight the farcical aspects of D and H’s predicaments without draining them of their pathos or their claustrophobic horror.
Rigorous, curious, and anxiously contemplative, EXHIBITION confirms Hogg’s place among the most interesting English-language filmmakers at work today.
8/28 – 9/3 // 7:30pm (tonight, 8/28)
Museum of Fine Arts
Avenue of the Arts
465 Huntington Avenue
Boston, Massachusetts 02115