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The Exhibition of D and H

Benedict Morrison

Joanna Hogg
UK Release: 19 October 2013

Exhibition, by British director Joanna Hogg, does not exactly have a story. It has a number of potential stories, but it is an exercise in narrative frustration more than realisation. An artistic couple, teetering perhaps on the brink of some crisis, are planning to move out of the impressive Modernist house which has been theirs for eighteen years. Known only as D and H, the couple often communicate through an intercom system that, naturally, forbids physical intimacy. Movements around the house are heard rather than seen. D, whose perspective the film clings to most resolutely, spends her time in a small study, work on her performance art held up by a shyness that will not allow her to discuss the piece with H. Unnamed, unable to speak of some past horror that makes going outside a trauma for D, unable to commit fully to moving on but unable to stay put, the couple’s situation is Kafkaesque. This, though, is Kafka as populated by privileged Londonites, and its exquisite horrors are intensified, and not diminished, by the insistent realism of the film’s locations and design.

As with her earlier features, Hogg typically uses exceptionally long takes and an exceptionally still camera. It would be reductive simply to equate this stillness with the stagnating relationship between D and H; there are, in fact, moments in which the couple’s exchanges take on a real dynamism, a sexual potency, a performative energy, and these moments are not greeted by a suddenly flexible frame. Rather, the camera’s passivity may be read as impassivity; the relentless shots implicate the viewer in an unflinching gaze, an outrageous and callous intrusion. When D, as H lies sleeping beside her, puts on heels and lacy knickers before dousing herself in essential oils, the intensity of the camera’s scrutiny is almost intolerable. The epic windows of the house, an architectural equivalence for the camera, transform the couple into a watched pair, a middle class beset by terrors of an unknown, unspeakable watcher, whose approval they crave desperately.

The windows are amongst the key symbols of the film. The house is D’s necessary place of sanctuary, a relief from the terror of the outside world. However, it is not a house of walls, but rather one of windows and doors. Indeed, many of the interior walls can slide away, insubstantial partitions only. Shots of the windows from outside punctuate the film, the glass reflecting the unexpected array of foliage, much of it exotic, which surrounds the house. These windows are not barriers, as walls would be, but rather unstable membranes, allowing access to the sounds, sights and colours of the encroaching and hostile spaces beyond. This notion of the perimeter as a threshold places the film firmly in the territory of the gothic, and the story of a woman trapped within the sounds and images of moving walls is reminiscent of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s great short story, ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’; here, the tree-reflecting windows offer the same ambiguous suggestion of malign watchfulness.

As a horror concerned with the murky psychological corners of bourgeois lives, Exhibition is a great success. The very textures and form of the film contribute its intimations of violence, while the story, as should be the case in more horror films, allows meandering ambiguity to speak of unspoken nightmares. The film’s quiet disquiet is terrible; the naturalistic soundscape of sirens, of sliding doors, of steps on stairways is devastating. For a moment, as a cake in the shape of the house is cut, symbolically demolishing the place which is as much a prison as a retreat, the reflections in the windows disappear; the glass becomes clear, hopeful. Silent shots of plants in the garden are offered in a startling, and startlingly beautiful, pink-washed monochrome. But these images are a momentary relief and the reflections return. This is a horror without resolution and, as a result, all the more terrifying.

It should be a source of some embarrassment to the British film industry that it has not properly marked the significance of Joanna Hogg’s films. Inflected by the avant-garde works of Chantal Akerman, by the terrifying absurdisms of Harold Pinter, and by that legion of British comedies devoted to middle-class mores, the films resonate with such a staggeringly broad tradition that they emerge unique. This is a major film, unflinching, funny, frightening, and—for whatever audience is sensitive to its strangeness—absolutely compelling.

Benedict Morisson is reading for a DPhil in English at Merton College, Oxford.