I’m trying to parse Joanna Hogg’s quiet sarcasm in Exhibition, which I’ve just watched for the third time. It’s an extremely subtle work. Nothing is overtly signaled, as it would have been in mainstream Hollywood terms, that now-mawkish iconography of “kitchen sink” social realism. No droopy tenement clotheslines here; no boozy patriarchs on the dole, grans in curlers puffing on fags. But this isn’t Salford in 1958. We’re in Kensington now, right now. Voices are soft, footsteps muffled — “Please remove your shoes,” says D, played by former punk crooner Viv Albertine, wonderfully cleaned-up after all these years.
Tensions in this marriage are never depicted as grossly confrontational. Snippy maybe, on occasion; never volatile. The one moment of unqualified rage occurs as a kind of Freudian displacement: the husband, called H (another non-actor, real-life conceptual artist Liam Gillick), flips out when a scruffy builder parks his minivan in their private carport, having mistaken the neo-Brutalist façade of the couple’s James Melvin house for “the back of the shops.” D hovers at the edge of the scene, almost out of frame, trying to calm him down, tendering ineffectual negotiations between the two, like an invisible mime. In a later scene that reminded me of Kurosawa (unlike most of the rest of the flick, which nods unapologetically to Yazujirō Ozu’s locked-down camera) she follows him barefoot through the streets of their tony London neighborhood as he walks off some internal, nocturnal, boy-tantrum.
When left alone in that ultra-minimalist structure, D is immediately put on edge by the merest gurglings of a radiator. In panic mode, she’s thinking inside the box — checking deadbolts, peering down stairwells, testing the alarm system, peaking though Venetian blinds at the street below. So it’s clear she is both trapped and on the defensive. H wields all the power in this relationship. D submits, acolyte to his greater renown. They’ll sell the house because that’s the decision that he has made — a decision he then mansplains in the dreary platitudes of opportunity. Obviously stricken by his preemptive willfulness, she protests feebly, and we see her as victim.
But is she? In one wince-inducing scene in which H tries to manipulate her into sex, she not only shows no interest but actively feigns lifelessness. H keeps pawing at her, pretending — in a fumbly pastiche of sensitive heteronormative romance — to regard her shoulder or knee on equal erogenous terms with her pudendum. He’s going for the Oscar. (See how, gazing into your eyes, I touched your left deltoid seven times and your right quadriceps medialis four times, while completely ignoring your snatch for almost a full minute?) “Just do it, just get it done,” she implores, exasperated. So her limp Sleeping Beauty act re-defines his stupid foreplay as necrophilia.
And through almost the entire film we barely notice that D, too, is an artist and that she’s on the job, constructing a new work of body-performance, something vaguely in the tradition of Valie Export. When early on she’s seen wrapping herself round a wooden chair, slithering against one of its hard corners, we have no idea that this is a moment of engineering and planning, of literal staging: what we take for a furtive wank is in fact a conscious articulation of sexual alienation.
Meanwhile H seems to be losing his nerve, plainly frustrated by the way in which adulation, from the critics and the public who venerate him, has effectively suborned him to their contaminating purposes. What the hell — it turns out he’s the one who’s trapped, defensive. For D, things are clarifying. She’s leaving that house, maybe him too. Maybe not.