MUBI is showing Joanna Hogg's Unrelated (2007) from January 13 - February 12 and her Exhibition (2013) from January 14 - February 13 in the United States.
Joanna Hogg’s films, including Unrelated and Exhibition, can at least partly be viewed in the tradition of British realist films: for example, with their long, static takes, casting of non-professional actors in addition to professional ones, or discarding the classicist narrative structure in favor of a more open-ended, episodic organization. However, instead of a narrative focus on the domestic situations of the working class, Hogg’s films focus exclusively on the emotional life of the social and economical elites; while her work could perhaps be said to be linked to Mike Leigh formally, thematically it has more in common with the alienated bourgeois of Michelangelo Antonioni. In her films, especially Unrelated and Exhibition, she explores the (sometimes self-imposed) constraints of the life of upper-class women; but though that makes them an easy target of class criticism, the stories of these films might as well be read as an effective exploration of the obstinate social and internalized residue of patriarchal structures even in the best of environments.
A prominent element of her films (also resonating with the realist tradition) is the utilization of the symbolic potential of terrain, or of space and place, both in Unrelated and even more pronouncedly and almost to the point of abstraction, in Exhibition. A good comparison can be found in the genre of costume drama, like in the case of the adaptations of Jane Austen’s novels: its female characters are mostly confined to the house, both metaphorically and actually, as a result of socio-historical circumstances. The interior space in these films is heavily gendered, featuring a spatio-temporal economy of physical and sexual constraint. But while the protagonist of Exhibition, an upper-class, educated, white woman in a rich and liberal Western country in the 21st century, should finally be free of those constraints, the house still appears to hold something to have a hold on to her.
D (Viv Albertine) is an artist who spends her days exploring her creative potential and facing her anxiety of moving out of the house she has shared with her partner, H (Liam Gillick), an architect, since the beginning of their relationship. If the heroines of costume dramas were waiting patiently by the windows for visitors and news from the outside world, but especially for their suitors (a common visual motif of the genre), than D, the protagonist of Exhibition, is often using the windows for her exhibitionist impulses, which seem to be a kind of a flip side of her apathy towards having sex with her partner. While constraints on female sexuality were historically imposed socially, in Exhibition they seem so fully internalized, even if made latent, that the liberalization of women’s lives still fails to have the desired effect. The historical female body continues to reproduce itself what it was told to do for so long, with the repressed desires surfacing in transformed and unexpected ways. Power has been associated with mobility at least since Austen’s novels, and despite all of her socio-economic privileges, D seems hopelessly house-bound. Hogg emphasizes this by focusing artistically wholly on the modernist house in which D and H live: its imposing Hitchockian staircase, its loudly sliding doors and chairs, its security systems and especially its floor-to-ceiling windows, which function almost as a threshold, a version of Alice’s looking glass, an invisible border reflecting both the going-ons inside the house and the antithetical world outside, which on account of the windows’ size constantly seems almost, though never quite, there. However, the windows aren’t used only to gaze from the inside out anymore; now, as if in a struggle to break free, they also serve as means of inviting the anonymous gaze from the outside in.
But while the house in Exhibition is definitely a cage, it is also a cocoon, and that might be precisely the reason why D is so reluctant to leave it. In Simone de Beauvoir’s view, women are only half victims of their own oppression—they are half accomplices, too. The worry of existence emboldens their temptation to flee freedom and make themselves into passive objects. While seemingly unburdened by patriarchy, D still struggles with confidently presenting and making a case for her creative work (while her partner, H, comfortably talks about his work with seeming ease), failing somehow to take up the role of the artist, “the auteur,” the creative genius which has historically been constructed as masculine. In addition, while her sexuality and its desires don’t seem to fit in the frame of the conventional heterosexual (or heteronormative) sex, the problem is that they also, for the moment at least, remain undefined—being non-existent and unacknowledged historically, they seem to remain unclear and confused even to herself. If there is a female gaze in Exhibition, it seems to be blind or at least have very poor sight. Though in a way almost sexually repulsed by her long-term partner, D craves his nearness in other ways, which are more reminiscent of an affectionate relationship between a child and a parent, focusing, perhaps, on a sense of security instead of eroticism. When H tries to leave the house, even if for a short walk, D will relentlessly and desperately follow him, playing a role that is in turn parental and childish.
Let’s return for a moment to the spatial economy of the costume drama genre, which British cinema is at least as crucially defined by as it is by social realism, keeping in mind the reluctance of D to leave the house and to let H leave it as well. In contrast with the confinement of the interiors, like parlors, libraries, or home-offices, outdoor spaces and the countryside with its freedom of movement seem to create a sense of spatial and emotional expansiveness, a sense of adventure (even if only with country walks, picnics and coach rides in the case of costume drama); an escape from manners, order and repression, to perhaps a freer working of (female) desire. In Unrelated, Anna (Kathryn Worth) joins her old friend and her family for a holiday in Tuscany, which in British-made imagery seems to be an example of the somewhat exotic countryside and the abundance of the outdoors. Her visit to the family is revealed to be an escape from the reality of her struggling relationship with her partner, and the changed environment seems to prompt her to act differently than she normally would.
Being aged in between the generation of the parents and the children, Anna joins the young adults in their hedonistic countryside adventures and then gradually engages in an intense flirtation with one of the “children,” Tom (Tom Hiddleston). The game she is playing is doubly hazardous: he is younger than her, even more, he is just barely an adult. While it may be frowned upon for an older man to try to seduce a younger woman, such an endeavor hardly jeopardizes his masculinity (as defined in a traditional sense, of course), while a woman doing the same with a younger man might be seen as overstepping a few more social, especially gender boundaries. Anna plays the game anyway, because it is fresh and exciting in comparison to the relationship she is clearly unhappy in, and through it, an alternative feminine desire is being formed. It is one that D in her house in Exhibition can’t really begin to imagine: a female gaze that finds pleasure in Tom’s young, boyish body.
Hogg, however, makes it clear that the escape is just temporary; perhaps it cannot last because of the lingering societal constraints or perhaps because those constraints have become internalized in the women themselves. Still, there is a different outlook for D, who seems a bit older, than for Anna, who is younger. Even though it hardly seems so at first glance, Unrelated with its female protagonist’s somewhat defeated return to “normalcy,” the safe though stifling environment of an unsatisfactory relationship that might not be tailored to ever fit her needs, seems much gloomier and less optimistic than Exhibition—where the woman is not really conscious of her own desires—but at least, it doesn’t seem like she will give up on trying to form them either, refusing to passively settle for the existing condition, even if that might seem easier.