Compared to the Bohemian artistic couple in Zachary Heinzerling’s documentary “Cutie and the Boxer,” D (Viviane Albertine) and H (Liam Gillick), the Kafkaesque names of the pair in British director Joanna Hogg’s “Exhibition,” live a life of order, comfort, and professional recognition. Whether or not they are the more fortunate couple is up to the viewer to decide.
Certainly, of the two, they are more symptomatic of their times, each wrapped up in their own conceptualism, fantasies, and ambitions. But Hogg maintains a probing detachment and a cold intimacy. As befits the title, she presents her subjects like specimens in an exhibit, with a rigorously structured style that is non-judgmental and unsparing.
D and H, who are childless and in their 50s, live surrounded by mirrors, working in separate spaces, communicating by intercom to announce requests for company or fetishistic sex or more heat. Their routines epitomize the cozy isolation, ennui, and solipsistic artistic aspirations of a certain kind of success.
But at the center of the film lies the couple’s house, the symbol of their identity, a big boxy modernist anomaly among the rows of identical Edwardian brownstones in their West London neighborhood. Floor to ceiling windows open the building to the world and vice versa, and a common image in the film involves one of the characters, usually D, peering through a window, with reflections of the interior and the exterior superimposed on each other. At other times D opens the blinds to practice her sexualized performance pieces, which involve putting on transparent outfits or binding her torso with reflecting tape, and posing provocatively for the benefit of any passing voyeur (and, on at least one occasion, H). She is — there’s no way around it — an exhibitionist.
Nonetheless, both feel that after two decades it’s time for a change. Perhaps they feel suffocated, or need to confront what lies beyond. In one scene H works up a fit of rage and storms outside despite D’s protestations (“It reminds me of what happened before,” she says ominously). D also has moments of alienation; while alone at home one night the familiar surroundings turn menacing and the noises from inside and outside drive her to near panic like Catherine Deneuve’s character in “Repulsion.” So even though they both love the house — in D’s case, especially when she works on her performance pieces, the love is almost carnal — they have decided to sell.
Such is the story, a fable of 21st-century anomie, and Hogg relates it with oblique, formal rigidity. In every scene the camera remains stationary, with the action taking place within the frame as if caught by accident. The scenes follow one another elliptically, like a slide show. Her style might be likened to that of a post-modern Yasujiro Ozu — with the single setup evoking not a human point of view, as does that of the great Japanese director, but that of a depersonalized observer.
Maybe not entirely depersonalized, however. Hogg has a point of view and a point to make, cryptic though they may be. In one darkly comic scene, D feigns a fainting spell to escape dinner with a couple who bring up the subject of kids and how D and H’s house would be a poor place to raise them. Near the end, however, the new owners of the house are seen through the windows — a mother and father and their kids jumping up and down, the first expression of pure joy in the film. It would seem an ideal house for children, then, especially those who refuse to outgrow their childhood.
Peter Keough can be reached at email@example.com.