With her third feature film Exhibition, acclaimed British director Joanna Hogg explores new possibilities of film space. A surreal drama about a couple trying to sell their London townhouse, the film moves towards a less linear narrative structure to give audiences more freedom of interpretation.
The interplay between exhibition and exhibitionism, as well as between the process of envisaging an art installation and film as an art installation is especially interesting in Exhibition. Would you like to say a little bit more about that?
JH: Actually the idea of the film as an exhibition came later on when I was editing. I never find the title for my film until much later. When I have a little bit of distance from it, I can see or start to see what it is and what it has become. The fact that this film was about this play between between exhibition and exhibitionism became more clear to me when we were editing. Up until that point I was focusing on the idea of the house, which is like a gallery space too, as a container for all the ideas, the dreams and the memories, the life of this married couple.
The house is a very interesting setting in Exhibition. D wears clothes in stripes of different kinds all the time and in a way the house is like a prison but at the same time it is their relationship which is imprisoning sometimes. What do you think about the house?
JH: Both a prison but also a haven, it’s also a place to escape to and to feel safe in. I was always interested in the idea of the house and the story being inside-out. The idea of stripes came less from the idea of the prison because they are horizontal lines rather than vertical ones. It’s more that she was becoming part of the house, as the windows blinds are horizontal. It’s almost like she is becoming part of the architecture and she disappeared into a house. But yes, it is also a prison and she was trying to leave the confines of the house.
Her body movement and interaction with furniture and objects play into that as well, as she interacts a lot more with furniture and objects than with her partner…
JH: In a way she is in a relationship with the house. That’s an easier relationship for her than the relationship with her husband, which is more challenging, as she exposes more of her self than with her husband. With the house they sort of melt into each other, and they become the same thing. I was always interested in the story about the three characters, or maybe you could even say one character, the house. The house is the main character, the main idea, and everything else exists within that.
What is different from your previous films is the fact that you used a lot of dream and recollection images in Exhibition, which are like ghostly presence in the house and which intrude into their reality.
JH: Yes, this was something I was experimenting with for the first time. My other two films, in a way, are just on one level of the reality. Here I was challenging myself to work with, first of all, the less linear structure, but also to incorporate dreams and memories. It was the house itself that sort of provided me with the idea or was the springboard for those ideas. I was interested in not just presenting dreams as you often have in the dream, where you have a dream sequence but having more of a confusion between what’s dream and what’s reality. In a funny sort of way the two previous films, **Unrelated** and **Archipelago** kind of seem more real but actually this [Exhibition] feels like a more realistic depiction of my own life or how dream is life in some level and how one is constantly dreaming and remembering but is also in the present moment as well. So it is a more accurate representation of that somehow. For me it is more realistic.
As you are using more dream images in Exhibition, does that change your relationship and the film’s relationship with the spectator in a way?
JH: Yes it does. What I discovered is that it is more challenging for the audience to enter that space and to understand it, so I often have a response, such as “I sort of don’t get it” or “I am kind of not in there”. But I also have the opposite response, which is audience who really understand it and get it. They either enter into the space or they don’t. There doesn’t seem to be a mid-way point. That’s interesting, as right now I am in Lithuania presenting all three films and I am observing the different responses to each film. For example, for the Q&A for Unrelated and Archipelago, especially Archipelago actually, everyone wants to stay for the Q&A. With Exhibition, half of the audience left. I have to accept. That’s just how it is. I don’t think that necessarily tells me that I should go back to making films like Unrelated and Archipelago but I am just dealing with something more challenging. But because it is less linear as a story and there’s less of a story, I mean I think there is a lot of story in Exhibition personally, but I think the audience finds that more difficult to sort of see it. Yes I am not disheartened by that but just accept that there is a different kind of response to each film. Despite that I want to continue exploring different ways of not just telling stories but depicting how I observe life to be.
Is that the direction which you want to go for your next project?
JH: It’s really hard to say. At the moment I am working on a story set in early 1980s and it’s quite a personal story and in fact, there is quite a lot of events in it, but I am not necessarily going to talk about these events in a linear way, but I am not necessarily going to continue in the direction of where Exhibition has gone to. I don’t know because I am writing it and like to challenge myself, so I might find myself in a very different direction. I might find this new film will have a very strong narrative. That’s not because I am looking for that, but it might just naturally come out from these memories I have, this period of time that I want to depict.
You are exploring women’s sexuality in such a subtle way which is difficult to be seen in male filmmakers’ works. What do you think about the role as a female filmmaker in a male-dominated industry?
JH: It’s important that there should be more female filmmakers as there is a tiny percentage of them at the moment. It’s important to me to explore themes that are personal to me, maybe not just as a woman but as a human being. I definitely found in the reception of my films, especially Unrelated the first one, which was dealing with a kind of taboo subject in a way, which is the menopause. I found definitely certain male audience members finding that difficult or finding that in some way that’s something they don’t want to look at or think about. I am aware that there is a sort of limitation in this kind of subject from a male point of view. I have to say that I think less about being a female filmmaker now than when I was directing television. That was an issue in an everyday way, where I was often working with male crews who clearly had a problem with the woman telling what they wanted. That was continually a problem working in television series, so in a different world. Having done that for 12 years, I came out of that, determined to create my own world of filmmaking where I could choose who worked with me, who the crew members were, who the cast were. To feel safe in an environment of my own making. It’s less a problem now so I think about it less. I only think about it in a more political way in terms of how many women assist men in making films, and I want to encourage more women to find their own voices, less in the way in a way that I am actually touching myself. Like I say, I am protecting myself from that.
(A shorter version of this interview was published on Exberliner.)