When a director’s stylistic approach perfectly complements the content they choose to explore, it’s easy to recall the chicken/egg dilemma: does the style just happen to coincide with the content, does one serve as a natural extension of the other, or is it a purposeful confluence of elements? In reality, it’s most likely to be the latter option, and this philosophical quandary comes immediately to mind when watching the meticulously contained films of Joanna Hogg.
Hogg didn’t direct her first feature until the age of 47, which could easily account for the tangible confidence that permeates each frame of her debut, 2007’s Unrelated. With each successive film the characters she explores, upper-crust, middle-aged white people, become less approachable and the beguiling style that explicates them, static, observational, and disquieting, becomes more pronounced. Continuing with 2010’s Archipelago and her latest, Exhibition, Hogg digs deeper into the class to which she undoubtedly herself belongs, casting a suspicious eye on motivations and self-awareness, but maintaining a quiet empathy that gives her films their true singularity; she’s judging without being judgmental.
Each of the protagonists in Hogg’s first two films finds themselves on a forced journey, either as a result of personal catastrophe or crossroads, but unlike the most feted cinematic depictions of “white people problems,” here you don’t see these characters luxuriating in their natural habitat. In Unrelated, Anna (Kathryn Worth) retreats on a Tuscan holiday at the behest of a longtime friend, Verena (Mary Roscoe). In her early/mid forties, Anna is something of a lost soul as she befriends and tries, in her awkward way, to seduce a friend’s much younger son, Oakley (Tom Hiddleston in his breakthrough performance). The idyllic locale does little to set a healing path for Anna, and this is where Hogg’s camerawork becomes a discursive mechanism.
Like Ozu, Hogg frames her characters often in medium shots in an invariably static frame. The world around the characters may be moving, but they remain trapped within. This technique shows both the empathy and skepticism the director feels for her characters, and the audience comes to understand the characters, slowly, as they struggle to move beyond personal struggles. Bits and pieces of Anna’s history become clear through interactions and offhand remarks, but the reasons for her trip, the emotional walls she puts up, and the intergenerational romance she tries to incite, don’t present themselves until a particularly cathartic third-act confession.
Similarly in Archipelago, a soul in limbo searches for answers in an environment that should be comforting but isn’t. When Edward (Hiddleston again) vacations at a family home before taking a year in Africa to do humanitarian work, a reunion with family quickly devolves to in-fighting, hysterics, and squirm-inducing elitism. It’s not unlike Woody Allen’s dour Interiors in its claustrophobic dependence upon the interiors of a building. As in Unrelated, action unfurls itself slowly and quietly, with an insidious sense of disease beginning to grow as each scene unassumingly passes. Because the characters in Hogg’s films often have little autonomy over their own movement, they appear to be struggling to find their voice, just as the audience is struggling, at least momentarily, to find compassion for them. In contrast, Edward, and Anna in Unrelated, are occasionally juxtaposed amid the expanse of their natural environment, but in these outdoor scenes the characters are presented in longshot as if an infinitesimal speck upon the world around them. This bit of philosophical framing similarly complements the usual routine of immobile medium shots.
The harmony between style and content crystallizes in Exhibition, a film that, perhaps expectedly, flips the script by locating its protagonists almost exclusively in the home. H (Liam Gillick), an architect, and his wife D (Viv Albertine), a visual/performance artist, are about as modern a couple as you’ll find. Like the characters in Hogg’s other films, H and D are wealthy and learned people quickly facing a mid-life crisis. The impetus for that shift comes when H pushes for the couple to leave the place where they spend the majority of their time, the home. It’s a particularly highbrow problem, but Hogg doesn’t condescend the cause, instead choosing to look at the symptoms that produce the couple’s ennui and the effects of those symptoms. In this way, the cause is almost ancillary. Depicting H and D in their natural environment is illustrative because the home they inhabit is cold in its modernity, as are the people who dwell inside. Hogg makes use of shadows, mirrors, windows, askew angles, and a now-signature static frame to highlight the couple’s unhappiness.
Because Hogg rarely uses non-diegetic sound, eschews voiceover narration, and often amplifies the natural sound in her characters’ environments, the uneasy tone of her films often resembles that of a mystery, even though the narratives (if you could call them that) are relatively straightforward. Exhibition has an especially strange vibe to it, which is a desired consequence of this stylistic approach.
Many directors have made a considerable living off peddling the wares of successful (white) people with problems, but Hogg’s films have a unique aim: they don’t ask for sympathy for these people (à la American Beauty) nor do they try and make light of their problems through comedy (hi, Woody Allen). Instead, these familiar characters are presented as oddities, perhaps misunderstood, but never uninteresting.