Joe Swanberg’s films have always been acutely interested in communication, specifically the double-edged nature of the very things that bring people together. These have ranged from the shared interests and insecurity-driven ironicism of Hannah Takes the Stairs to the broad gulf of the Internet (LOL, Uncle Kent) and the bonds of marriage and sisterhood explored in Alexander the Last. Taking structural cues from the latter, Art History delves into the mechanics and external drama of a single sex scene, examining the fissures that can develop from capturing a single scene on film.
One of the four films the director has completed this year, Art History stands out as one of his most visually and conceptually accomplished experiments. He leads the cast himself, playing a director who starts to crack while shooting a graphic love scene. Motivations and details are characteristically sparse, but the film’s simple structure, which shifts between shots of actors Kent Osborne and Josephine Decker and Swanberg’s character watching them on his computer, once again identifies a triangle with a conspicuous outsider. Like the title character of Uncle Kent, the director initially appears to be in a position of power, but is quickly reduced to the status of voyeur, able to absorb a scenario with no influence over how it plays out.
The staging of this dissociative roundelay is still presented in a forcefully lo-fi format, prizing roughly framed shots, improvisation, and flat characters, but there are ever clearer indications that Swanberg is producing something more than empty-headed slacker cinema. The length of his shots has begun to seem less like artistic pretension than a method of communicating tension, and he exhibits an increasing comfort with the digital format, exploiting deep focus to create multi-tiered compositions, casting the rooms of a small suburban house in a thick darkness that hovers around the frame like smoke. The chamber-play structure, with a single setting and three primary characters, also merges well with the inherent thinness of the director’s style. The characters are as bland and sketchily developed as always, but by now that seems like a stylistic quirk rather than a consistent flaw.
The photography still sometimes dissolves into an unsavory mush of obvious zooms and stagnant immobility, but there are moments of real virtuosity here, including a seductive night-swimming scene which contains what’s probably the best single shot of his career. There’s also a much better presentation of themes that in his earlier, less mature efforts seemed too clunky and obvious. Paired with the poignancy of the unreleased Uncle Kent, one of the best films on the hypnotizing power of the Internet, Art History signals a strong year for a director with an increasingly sharp focus.