Exhibition: Locarno Review

Scenes from an art-world marriage.

British writer-director Joanna Hogg’s absorbing chamber drama explores the emotional and sexual tensions between two London artists.

Set in a strikingly modernist house in contemporary London, the third feature by British writer-director Joanna Hogg is a closely observed portrait of two middle-aged artists in the third act of a long relationship. Beautifully shot with an acute eye for crisp composition, this intimate mood piece explores the subtle intricacies and low-level power struggles of long-term love in forensic detail. Unveiled at the Locarno Film Festival this week, Exhibition is an impressively mature and crafted work, but the chilly tone and fragmentary, open-ended narrative will likely limit its theatrical potential to art-house connoisseurs.

Like Hogg’s two previous features, the acclaimed but critically polarizing Unrelated and Archipelago, this absorbing low-budget drama takes place among the moneyed British middle classes. But this time, any hint of acerbic social satire is restricted to a few dinner party scenes, which prove to be the weakest in the film. Most of the drama consists of private domestic exchanges between artists D (Viv Albertine) and H (Liam Gillick), a childless couple in their fifties wrestling with mixed emotions as they prepare to sell their beloved London home, a geometric masterpiece of glass walls and sliding screens.

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Hogg casts non-professional leads with interesting off-screen baggage, a gamble which pays off handsomely in two nuanced, highly naturalistic performances. Gillick is an award-winning conceptual artist, born in Britain but currently residing in New York, while Albertine is a musician and sometime television director best known for her work with the seminal London post-punk band The Slits. The pair’s experiences as real-life artists clearly inform their on-screen characters, especially during conversations about their creative processes, which feel as effortlessly authentic as eavesdropping on old friends.

The relationship between D and H crackles with tension. He is an alpha-male egotist given to angry outbursts. She is a vulnerable, daydreaming introvert who becomes anxious when home alone, partly due to some past trauma that remains unexplained. Their sex life appears to be stalled in a no man’s land of emotional blackmail and weary resignation, a bleak stalemate many long-term couples will recognize. D’s erotic focus lies more in solo acts of exhibitionism, which blur the line between performance art and masturbation. All the same, Hogg is not peddling a simplistic narrative of male villains and female victims here. These carefully shaded protagonists share plenty of mutual warmth, tenderness and humor.

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Mostly filmed in static shots, Exhibition is a visual delight, framed in precisely composed close-ups of the house both inside and out. Fans of Hogg's previous films may also relish the in-joke cameo by her former leading man Tom Hiddleston, who appears fleetingly as a smooth-talking real estate agent. But the core drama feels underpowered, serving up two well-drawn characters but doing very little with them. There are teasing hints here of a Michael Haneke-style thriller about urban paranoia, or a Mike Leigh-style treatise on class-ridden Britain. But the episodic script ultimately proves to be more still life than dynamic narrative.

At heart, Exhibition is more of a love letter to architecture than to artists. The house is the film’s true emotional center of gravity, with architect James Melvin even receiving a dedication in the credits. Its half-glimpsed human inhabitants, for all their exotic urges and unresolved tensions, are merely passing through.

Production company: Wild Horses Film Company, BFI, BBC Films, Rooks Nest Entertainment

Producer: Gayle Griffiths

Cast: Viv Albertine, Liam Gillick, Tom Hiddleston

Director: Joanna Hogg

Writer: Joanna Hogg

Cinematographer: Ed Rutherford

Editor: Helle Le Fevre

Sales company: Visit Films, New York, www.visitfilms.com

Unrated, 104 minutes