Director Joanna Hogg is no stranger to depicting the destabilisation of familial bonds; it has been the subject of all three of her films since her debut Unrelated in 2007. Exhibition continues her exploration of the theme, dealing with the tense marriage of two artists known only as D (Viv Albertine) and H (Liam Gillick). The film is set almost entirely inside their modernist London home created by the late architect James Melvin, to whom this film is dedicated.
Exhibition opens with the couple having a minor argument over D’s work as a performance artist. She does not want H’s input because she believes he will criticise her work and ruin her artistic vision. H feels unvalued as the communication between the two breaks down, exemplified by the reduction of their communication to telephone conversations, even when they are mere metres from one another. The increasing distance between the two is counterpointed by the very intimate moments of D’s life which are revealed by the episodic narrative, ranging from her aimless wandering around the house to her lacklustre sex life, repeatedly highlighting the isolation she feels in what should be a successful and happy life. This is represented by the imminent sale of their house, which has been the one unchanging constant throughout their married life up to this point, throwing both her emotional and physical worlds into disarray.
Perhaps the most notable quality of Exhibition is the superb sound design, with ambient noise taking precedence over human interaction. Dialogue is sparse, whereas the outside world penetrates the walls of the house with the sounds of sirens, car engines and laughter, all expressing what the introverted D cannot. Even the house produces some haunting sounds, whether it’s the thunder-like rumbling of H’s office chair or the growling of the boiler from the basement. It would not be wrong to think of this as ghost story; D even mentions some event that “happened last time”, but with no further hints as to what that might have been. The camera is completely static throughout the film, focussing on the aesthetics of the house (as would be expected from a film called ‘exhibition’) whilst simultaneously utilising the reflections in the windows to frame the beauty of the outside world as though each shot were an individual painting. At one point, whilst looking over her own drawings, D remarks that an elderly couple used to live in the house before them, and that the walls of the house “recorded a long, happy marriage”. Her desperation to find the key to a blissful relationship is characterised by her almost Gothic manner of stalking around the house, the cupboards and twisted staircases bearing down on her, mirroring her emotional state. Whether this stems from the pressure to have children, or her becoming disillusioned with her lifestyle, is difficult to say.
Many viewers may find the problems faced by the wealthy middle class to be trivial, with some scenes feeling overly drawn-out, yet the common fears of isolation and drastic lifestyle changes are well examined. The feelings of anxiety that are drawn out by the sound design are compelling, not abating even in the brief moments of happiness, whilst characters are left undeveloped enough to aid the sense of mystery surrounding the house. However, Hogg may want to choose a different subject matter for her next film if she wishes to avoid being identified as a director who mires herself in a single idea.