With acute sensitivity, Brit writer-helmer Joanna Hogg’s third feature, “Exhibition,” explores the difficulty of telling inside from outside, intimacy from estrangement, and revelation from concealment. It seems entirely appropriate, then, that the whole thing teeters between very boring and completely fascinating, like being stuck on a plane in business-class seats next to a bickering couple you can’t stop eavesdropping on. Formally more ambitious but even more spare, brooding and oblique than her uncompromisingly rarefied previous pics, “Unrelated” and “Archipelago,” “Exhibition” could divide Hogg’s small but loyal pool of fans.
Given how deeply embedded Hogg’s previous films felt in a particular kind of English, well-bred, urban-sophisticate world, it almost comes as a shock to realize this is her first film to be set in London itself. It was so palpably obvious — to British ears, based on accent alone — that Blighty’s capital was where those characters from “Unrelated” and “Archipelago” lived most of the time, even if the films themselves were set in vacation homes in, respectively, Tuscany and Tresco, one of the Isles of Scilly.
The two protagonists of “Exhibition” are known only by their initials, D (musician Viv Albertine, guitarist for femme punk band the Slits) and H (conceptual artist Liam Gillick, a contemporary of the now-not-so-Young British Artists who came to prominence in the 1990s). They could easily be friends, relatives or, at the very least, neighbors of the characters in Hogg’s other films. Indeed, D and H’s unnamed neighbor (Mary Roscoe), a barrister’s wife who’s in a permanent fret about her children, could be virtually the same character Roscoe played in “Unrelated.”
D and H aren’t on vacation, but it might look that way to anyone who’s not a self-employed creative type who works from home. She’s a performance artist, and he also does something in the arts — maybe architecture — although, like so much here, it’s not explained what exactly. They spend most of their time and the movie padding from their individual home offices to the bedroom to the living room of their lushly glazed modernist house (designed by architect James Melvin, to whom the film is dedicated), somewhere in the borough of uber-wealthy Kensington and Chelsea, and they. Once in a while, he calls her on the phone’s intercom system, indirectly proposing a bout of sex to break up the day. Mostly, she declines.
With its crisp right angles and clanging spiral staircase, its complex system of sliding doors and whispering garden of wind-ruffled foliage, the house is a third protagonist in the story, the pampered and adored child substitute for D and H. For reasons also never explained, they have decided to sell up and move out after 18 years (perhaps the house is going off to college). In negotiations with the real-estate agents (one of whom is played by Tom Hiddleston, who made his bigscreen debut in “Unrelated”), D and H try to ensure that no one buys the house planning to tear it down or even change it.
Clearly, the thought of moving has disturbed the couple’s equilibrium, and a great weight of resentment and ennui is discernible beneath their testy verbal exchanges. D is possibly the one who’s more attached to their home; the striped shirts she frequently wears echo the horizontal lines of the Venetian blinds. She’s imprisoned herself there, and seems frightened of going out for an evening stroll with H, who comes and goes more easily. The house is her stage, and she literally makes an exhibition of herself, like one of those lingerie-clad prostitutes who sit in cozy Amsterdam windows, as she plays erotically with her semi-naked body; at one point she wraps herself in fluorescent tape in front of her office’s open window. There’s no dire consequence to this, as there might be in a more melodramatically minded movie, but the superbly crafted soundtrack of source noises makes it clear that the outside world — of passing pedestrians and cars and, at one point, a screaming ambulance — is just beyond the glass.
It’s annoying, especially to women viewers, that every time a female actor over the age of 40 takes her clothes off in a film she’s called brave, but Albertine’s willingness to expose herself here, physically and emotionally, is nevertheless impressive, especially since she’s not a professional thesp. A scene in which D masturbates in bed beside a sleeping H is astonishing, simultaneously quietly erotic, stridently sad and brutally honest about femme sexuality, exactly the opposite of pornographic convention. Albertine deserves kudos, as does Gillick and above all Hogg, whose skill at coaxing spontaneous performances from semi-improvised dialogue has never been better showcased than it is here. Audiences will never be in doubt that she and her cast members know these people from the inside out.
It’s a bit of a shame, then, that viewers aren’t allowed a bit more emotional access due to the pic’s fundamental lack of drama. Some will feel there’s just too much time spent watching these characters do hardly anything at all, and at times we can’t even see them directly, just their reflections in windows, precisely aligned and framed by Ed Rutherford’s painstaking lensing. All in all, it’s an exquisite, chilly film about an exquisite, chilly couple with a very acute set of First World problems, like a Richard Curtis movie filmed by Andrei Tarkovsky, without the one-liners.