In Exhibition, “D” and “H”, a fiftysomething couple, childless, live in a modernist London house designed by the late architect James Melvin. Both are successful contemporary artists, and during the days they occupy different floors in their studios, communicating via intercom (“What are you up to?” “Working.”) We observe their tensions and under-bubbling scraps, their deeper, long-married ease. One day he might be the one who’s confident and chatty, and the next it’s she who is more ablaze. Is he the Hazlitt to her Coleridge, or is it the other way round? And what will happen when they up sticks and move on from their elegant, calm-and-glass castle?
So this is the film – a marriage, a house and its rooms and sounds, and a move, all filmed in a manner that seems both improvised and relaxed while at the same time controlled and formal. When director Joanna Hogg arrived apparently out of nowhere in 2007 (she had in fact been directing British TV soap operas) with Unrelated, an understated, almost-Chekhovian, satirical ensemble piece about the British in Tuscany, critics threw themselves on it like starving men in the desert. She has a light (as opposed to consumingly bitter) contempt for the middle class, a talent with the deadpan and for stillness, and a taciturnity that builds into an extremely charged and distinctive silence.
Her films (Exhibition is her third) can feel like restrained carnivals of low-key scorn. She isn’t interested in “jokes” or “story” or “meaning”. She wants the emphasis to be on reality, above everything else. But at the same time she has no time for grimness or wonder or transcendence, unlike many British directors of a similar age – Steve McQueen, Andrea Arnold, Lynne Ramsay. And yet Hogg’s style is sometimes so minimal it is in danger of imploding completely. I confess I found her second film Archipelago (about a pained holiday in the Scilly Isles) undernourished and often boring. But not Exhibition.
The punk singer Viv Albertine as D is especially watchable, wandering amusedly through the different rooms of the house as though feeling all the cubic yardage of owned air on her skin. Artist Liam Gillick as H has stunning comic friction in the way he moves and speaks. And Tom Hiddleston (a favourite of Hogg’s), appearing briefly as an estate agent, has never been more languid and privileged, with many shades of ambiguity electrifying his few scenes.