Exhibition is an often disarming mixture of the remarkable and the banal. Director Joanna Hogg is an impeccable craftsman, as her images are ravishing and thematically unified. You could freeze any random moment of this film and hang it on your wall as part of your own exhibit to modern alienation, and Hogg’s incredibly sensitive to how we sentimentalize settings and bleed our emotions into them. Our homes, even those we rent for just a year or two, are living, shifting scrapbooks, and to leave them is to remind ourselves of life’s impermanence. When we first see D (Viv Albertine), she’s sprawled against the extravagantly large window overlooking London’s Chelsea from her office. D initially appears to be a human cocoon, seeming to yearn to become a part of the wall, to breathe into the structure and absorb the comforting bedrock.
D has been married to H (Liam Gillick) for nearly 20 years, and the two are in the midst of a quiet domestic crisis that only gradually reveals context. Both are prosperous artists, and H is committed to selling this gorgeous multi-floored home with the chic spiral stairwell and panel walls and envious views. D is clearly less certain of their move, and resentful of H’s steadfast preoccupation with work. She deflects his advances, though she’s clearly sexually frustrated, contorting herself into a variety of quasi-bondage poses that evocatively connect her performance art to her fear of losing her home to her nearly kinky masturbatory yearnings, the latter of which are revealed, late in the film, to reflect an early encounter with H. Otherwise, the two occupy their home, whispering to one another in barely audible pronouncements, awaiting a change that we intuitively feel could ruin them. A heartbreaking final shot confirms our suspicions of the source of their estrangement.
Yet, there’s a smug preciousness to all this. Exhibition is one of those films in which the act of depriving you of even rudimentary details is worn as a badge of artistic honor; the film practically dares you to be bored with it. D and H are artists that are defined as just that: “artists.” It takes an hour, at least, for us to piece together that D does performance pieces. We never know anything about them politically or socially, and we have little idea as to what they might do for fun. They’re clearly wealthy, but we don’t know how they arrived at that wealth, or the fashions in which it has affected their attitudes toward their art. Hell, it’s below Hogg to even give them names.
It could be argued that this coy evasion is meant to put us in the moment, to connect us to D’s self-imposed isolation, and that Hogg doesn’t need dialogue because her images are so extraordinarily dexterous. That’s true, to a point, but the formality only takes you so far in such a pat construction. Hogg’s in love with a particular metaphor where we see the foreground and background of the image blend together, mixing the chambers of the home with the surrounding neighborhood via a reflective surface (usually a window) that creates an almost abstract landscape. It seems that every other shot is arranged through shades or off of a mirror, and it grows redundant: D feels closed off, a bystander to her own life, wrapped up in her regard and her own carefully managed environment. We get it.
Beneath the ambiguity is a stock situation: another story of a female artist who feels eclipsed by her aloof male counterpart, who values intellectualism over feelings. Hogg leaches that setup of specificity in order to arrive at universality—a fancy way of saying that the director asks you to fill in her sketch with your own experiences because otherwise you’ve got another movie that buys into the stereotype of artists who do nothing but wander around pontificating their own brilliance all day. There are plenty of resonances, but they’re fussy and lifeless (the title has at least three meanings, though the most prominent contrasts the couple’s exhibition of the house with D’s exhibition of herself, two quests that end in irresolute torment). There’s considerable talent on display in Exhibition, but it’s the kind of thing people mean when they use the term “art film” as a pejorative.