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Why Not Film What Happened?

Unrelated

a film written and directed by Joanna Hogg

Archipelago

a film written and directed by Joanna Hogg

Exhibition

a film written and directed by Joanna Hogg

The Souvenir

a film written and directed by Joanna Hogg
Tom Burke and Honor Swinton Byrne in Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir
Sandro Kopp/Curzon
Tom Burke as Anthony and Honor Swinton Byrne as Julie in Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir

Joanna Hogg’s first movie, Unrelated (2007), opens in darkness: its main character, Anna, a woman of around forty, wheels a suitcase along a dirt road at night and is briefly lit up by a passing car. We don’t really grasp her situation until a few scenes later, when she greets the friend she’s visiting at a villa in Tuscany. This conspicuous lack of urgency in revealing the heroine and her circumstances proves to be a fair introduction to Hogg’s work: much of the film consists of prolonged stationary shots of rooms and horizons and bodies of water, or wide shots of Anna and her friend’s family on holiday.

With their unhurried duration and stark composition (often against the grain of desultory, off-camera dialogue), the scenes seem compounded of a nature documentary and a Tarkovsky film. Forming new hybrids from contrasting styles seems a major aim of Hogg’s quite various body of work. We are in a world of looking, of paying attention, that is either rigorously anthropological or highly aestheticized, or both. In Unrelated, the effect is one of intense interiority; it leaves the viewer almost alarmingly alone with herself.

Hogg, who grew up outside London, was in her mid-forties when she made Unrelated; it won an International Critics Prize and was hailed by British reviewers as strikingly subtle. She seemed to have fallen from the skies fully formed. Having started as a photographer’s assistant while still in her teens and gotten into the National Film School on the strength of the first short film she made, using a borrowed Super 8 camera (Derek Jarman lent her his after they met randomly in a café), she spent the next twenty years directing pop music videos and TV shows with titles like London’s Burning and Casualty. She has suggested she’s grateful for her long apprenticeship—after graduating she needed “to go and work on a very basic level and learn [her] craft”—though she has also said, of writing Unrelated, that “I wanted to make a film doing everything I was told not to do in television.”

Unrelated does look and sound like an object formed by its escape velocity from TV conventions (as well as those of most commercial movies). The camera remains fixed and tends to avoid closeups, while the actors (many of whom are civilians, without the baggage of training) largely improvise their roles. These techniques are familiar in the realm of arthouse cinema, but it’s unusual to pair them—like grafting the still, endlessly patient camera of Yasujirō Ozu or Chantal Akerman to the loose, seemingly spontaneous acting in films by John Cassavetes or Mike Leigh.

You can see Hogg pushing this style in different directions in the three films she’s made since Unrelated: toward greater stillness in Archipelago (2010), which sticks to family relationships but within a narrower emotional range; approaching complete abstraction without entirely abandoning narrative in Exhibition (2013); and with her latest, The Souvenir, launching out toward a more typically cinematic story and the wit and emotional sweep of an old Hollywood movie—as if she’d exhausted the possibilities of restraint in her first trio of films.

The Souvenir is itself billed as just half of a two-part project; this summer Hogg filmed its “sequel” (due to be released sometime next year), though she has stressed that it will stand on its own. She pursues her formal experiments not just within each movie but among them, and watching them in chronological order reveals how each one unfolds as an unexpected response to the last. It also suggests her debt to the formally restless work of Akerman and Agnès Varda, not as bearers of any specific style but as exemplars of the wild range of experiments that can emerge from the little category of “feminist autobiography.”

As Unrelated opens, Anna seems to have split up with her partner, Alex, and is embarking alone on a holiday they’d planned together, in Tuscany, with the numerous family of her old school friend Verena. Verena has become a middle-aged matron; Anna remains slim and tentative. She is played with painful immediacy by Kathryn Worth, and her constant smiling turns out to be the perfect emblem of her isolation. Hogg apparently asked Worth to watch Éric Rohmer’s The Green Ray (1986) before filming started; Worth’s physical resemblance to Rohmer’s heroine, a young woman named Delphine (played by Marie Rivière), is so strong that you wonder if Hogg cast her with this in mind.

In The Green Ray, Delphine’s improvised, zigzag monologues betray her increasing desolation as she navigates her summer holidays alone. Anna could be Delphine ten years later—nervous energy no longer animates her loneliness, and she remains almost mute at the center of Hogg’s film. She drifts into the teenagers’ orbit, smoking weed, careening through the countryside, car radio blasting. The erotic tension between Anna and Oakley, the caddish golden boy of the family (played superbly by Tom Hiddleston, in his first film role), is conjured in the most glancing way—a cereal box tipped next to Anna’s shoulder a second too long.

Her inner life remains hidden until she confesses to Verena, near the end of the film, that she thought she was pregnant but is actually entering menopause. Unrelated has until now been so rigorous in its refusal to psychologize that this burst of emotion carries more than ordinary weight; the confession explodes with formal audacity as well. It’s a cool, narratively loose film that suddenly shows itself concerned with a very particular kind of female experience, and willing to evoke an intense pain that, as recently as 2007, was much less mentionable than it is now.

Something of Anna’s situation has been hinted at in her phone calls with Alex back home; the camera catches up with her halted in the middle of a run, sweating, on a dirt road in the midst of spectacular scenery, arguing into her cell phone. These repeated shots of Anna talking, alone (as if she’s talking to herself), punctuate the film with a magnificent mixture of seriousness (she really is upset) and lightness: the camera stays still and keeps its distance, and its dry-eyed isolation of Anna’s body against a romantic Italian landscape verges on a subtle form of irony or even, at times, comedy.

In the course of shooting Unrelated, Hogg abandoned the screenplay she’d written for it, and the film’s static, composed camerawork brings the improvised nature of the acting into high relief. The three films Hogg has made since grew from her actors’ and nonactors’ improvisations based on what she calls a “document”: a narrative outline that takes her several years to compose and includes bits of dialogue as well as photographs. She leaves the document behind once filming starts, so what appears onscreen is her spontaneous rethinking of long-gestated material. “Shaping a story whilst actually…living the story…with the cast and the crew” is how she describes it.

The emotions underpinning Archipelago, her second film, are less piercing than those in Unrelated, and the whole thing feels colder, more artificially induced. The archipelago in question is the Isles of Scilly, off the coast of Cornwall, so the chill is literal. As the movie opens, a grown son joins his mother and sister at a rented house on Tresco, where a hired cook, who is the same age as the children, appears the next morning. Much of the film lingers, with a fixed camera, on seaside landscapes and on birdcalls so persistent and loud that they must have been turned up—not disrupting film’s the realism but underlining it, somehow fixing the world of the movie in the mind.

Fifteen minutes in, a local painter (who is played by a real painter, who hasn’t acted before or since) speaks these slightly trite, disputable words: “Abstraction is a reductive process, a way of simplifying, distilling, really, so…you get your intention clear across to the viewer. And, well—actually, most people just want to paint the view!” As the scene expands we gather that he’s giving lessons to the mother, and his basic definition of abstract art takes on a commercial coloring. He’s selling watercolor techniques, ways of seeing, but also, as the film proceeds, koans on the well-lived life. You feel a bit embarrassed to witness this, wincing at both the content of the lesson and the implication that we, as viewers, are willing and able to pay for it.

A plot summary of Archipelago would suggest it is a quiet film about domestic tensions (the father remains absent, the daughter has resentment-management issues, the son is tempted by the cook) set against a starkly Edenic backdrop; the British comedian Stewart Lee quipped that it’s “an art film about middle-class people on a disappointing holiday.” But in fact it unfolds as a kind of thriller, at times generating excruciating discomfort around questions of class. Hogg is often compared to Rohmer in her focus on upper-middle-class lives, but he used glorious locations and the milieu of great ease the way a painter uses bright colors, as raw material for his portraits of desire and temptation. His characters just happen to be rich and lucky, as well as frustrated. Hogg is different; it’s not that she criticizes or parodies her characters (except maybe the unpleasant daughter in Archipelago) but she captures their circumstances with an absolute clarity that implies a judgment about to be formed, though it never quite arrives. You sense that she can’t stop worrying about being a beneficiary of this world and about her work’s dependence on it.

Exhibition, Hogg’s third film, focuses on a pair of childless, middle-aged artists in their modernist London house. When they’re home, D, the wife, and her husband, H, often communicate by intercom (his office is upstairs from hers), and the throwaway nature of their dialogue carries the texture of real life, especially in the frequency with which these two creative people attempt, in the course of their workdays, to distract each other from work. When they’re together they sit in their blue dining room, at the blue table, disagreeing but not quite arguing about whether D should tell H more about her latest project; she wants to protect it from his judgment. They also disagree but don’t quite argue over H’s plan to sell the house, which so clearly serves as the stage of their relationship.

At a dinner party with friends who are having trouble with their teenaged son, D pretends to faint in order to escape the endless talk about the boy; but when D and H get home and start cuddling, H jumps up and says he needs to go out. D runs out behind him in her bare feet. At first it’s possible that he doesn’t know she’s there, but eventually (as she jogs on a path strewn with dry leaves) it seems he must hear her and chooses not to turn around. Is this a fantasy sequence? Its eccentricity is presented deadpan, forcing us to reach our own conclusions.

The degree to which performance is a feature of this relationship between two artists feels true but never quite expands into significance. The movie might be called The Unbearable Lightness of Being Creative. It is telling that the characters’ names are whittled down to letters. H, a conceptual artist, is played by Liam Gillick, who is really a conceptual artist; D, a visual and/or performance artist, is played by Viv Albertine, former guitarist of the all-female punk band the Slits. We see her drawing on paper but also posing half-naked on a stool in her study, facing a floor-to-ceiling window that looks out on the street, masturbating against a corner of the stool. When her intercom buzzes she tells H, breathlessly, that she’s working.1

The movie’s pleasures are to be found in the composition of its shots, their textures and colors: often Hogg points the camera through the windows of the house, reflections playing against a body or a room’s interior. The stripes of the window blinds, of the palm trees bristling both inside and out, and of D’s surprisingly suburban-mom wardrobe blend into something of a theme, further uniting D’s body with the house.

Hogg has said that the ideas for her first three films started with the houses in which they took place—the Tuscan villa, the house on Tresco, and the one in London—and in which the cast and crew actually lived during filming. Hogg is “very obsessed,” she has said, with “interior spaces…. They’re psychological spaces”—as if each house had a function similar to that of the “document” that shapes each film: “It’s a lot of credit to the actors that they have the intelligence and the instinct to tune into something…in the space.”

In retrospect Hogg’s fascination in Exhibition with textures and surfaces—with the substance of glamour—seems like a preparation for her new, lush, clear-eyed film, The Souvenir. Rather than “staging reality” at one location, it recreates, with an Errol Morris–like mania for historical accuracy, Hogg’s youth as an aspiring filmmaker in the 1980s and the relationship that informed and nearly eclipsed her ambitions. The “document” she assembled prior to filming included her youthful diaries, letters from her lover, even recordings her own therapy sessions. And yet The Souvenir is her least private film: of the four, it’s the most social and worldly, though also the most entranced with metacinematic questions.

We tend to think of fiction as containing more narrative than our lives do—in real life, most of the time, nothing happens. But Hogg’s work inverts this assumption: the boldness of her first three films—whose action was largely created in collaboration with her actors—rests in their narrative suspension, the sense as you’re watching that each story may not have a destination. They’re fictions that read as documentaries. The opposite is true of The Souvenir, which adheres to what really happened to Hogg in her twenties; here there’s so much urgent narrative that it reads like a novel or opera, some formally heightened version of events.

Questions about realism constantly come up in the film, usually posed by Anthony—a rumpled thirty-something in pinstripes and bowties. He appears one night at a party that Julie (Hogg’s stand-in) throws for her earnest, rowdy film school friends. Anthony is in some mysterious way employed by the Foreign Office, though whether this is a story to cover up an increasingly troublesome heroin addiction remains unclear. Julie is played by Honor Swinton Byrne—Tilda Swinton’s daughter, who has no training as an actor. An unobtrusive poise is the one constant of her performance, even in scenes that call for her to project social anxiety. As Julie’s rather conventional, rich, morally upright mother, Tilda Swinton enters the film like a blade—just verging on camp in the severity of her actorliness.

Swinton Byrne was the only cast member not shown where the film’s “document” was going in advance, in hopes of mimicking her character’s innocence. This and Hogg’s casting and use of improvisation betray a belief that “what really happened” on set will look more real than what might be formed by exploiting the conventions of cinematic realism (method acting, fine-tuned scripts, and so on). Though her films don’t really look like those of Robert Bresson, that master abstainer, they constantly evoke his obsessive investigation of what counts as real and what doesn’t onscreen. “Radically suppress intentions,” he writes of his approach to actors in Notes on the Cinematograph, and in her characteristic way Hogg has taken this idea, applied it to just one figure in her drama, and used entirely contradictory approaches for the rest.2 The result is a film in which each character is genuinely, irreconcilably, distinct from every other.

But the movie really depends on Anthony, played by Tom Burke, an English actor who has mostly appeared in BBC television dramas. He created Anthony’s combination of drawling delivery and clipped phrases—the source of his elegance, far more than his dandyish clothes—based on an audio recording of Hogg’s lover. His charm shades seamlessly to imperiousness and back to charm. In this he belongs in the screwball-comic tradition of leading men like Cary Grant in His Girl Friday or Spencer Tracy in Adam’s Rib: Anthony is the only one who comprehends the girl and is thus able to reform her or expand her horizons. In a screwball comedy, the man’s mistreatment can rise to condescension; translated to the autobiographical mode of The Souvenir, Anthony’s bad behavior toward Julie is much darker but also, for her, more enlightening and more useful.

Julie’s work—her movie idea, her grant proposals, her costume sketches—forms the main subject of their conversation. She’s struggling to make a movie about a boy named Tony in the depressed shipbuilding center of Sunderland, who’s terribly attached to his mother and whose attachment somehow ensures her death. In their first real conversation, Anthony asks Julie if it isn’t the cliché of decline that has enchanted her: “You’re not trying to document some received idea of life up there on the docks, the daily grind, huddled, listening to the wireless?” She replies, “Well, I am, but I’m creating something new with it. So the material is real, those people exist, but I am designing new ones.”

The Souvenir repeatedly conjures this delicious old conspiracy between the viewer and fictional characters who seem aware of their existence on the screen—it’s hard not to think of Rohmer’s Claire’s Knee, in which the two old friends Jérôme and Aurora discuss the blindfolded nature of “the hero” while looking at frescoes of Don Quixote. But Anthony also asks: “Why are they more real than me?” “They’re not more real than you,” says Julie. “Am I more real than you?” asks Anthony. In a sense, as the subject of this elegiac film, of course he is.

Their sparring recalls the conversations between D and H in Exhibition, in which a female artist defends her own terrain most effectively by keeping her mouth shut. Julie seems to concede Anthony’s authority over her work while sticking to her own views—never admitting that there’s a cliché at the center of her movie idea, because, as she tells two sneering male advisers at school, “I want to not live my whole life in this very privileged part of the world I come from.” That Anthony takes her seriously, even when imparting his greater wisdom, must be tremendously attractive to her. Several times in the film we hear a voiceover of Julie reading letters from him (the actual letters Hogg received), while the screen is filled with a stationary wide shot of sky above a thin strip of English countryside. These depopulated scenes, scattered through the film, present a gorgeously nostalgic evolution of Anna’s one-sided cell-phone arguments in Unrelated.

Soon after Julie and Anthony meet, they start going out, though not necessarily on dates. He takes her to see a Fragonard painting, The Souvenir (“I think she looks determined and very much in love,” he says, in the film’s only cloying scene), and to lunch at his club. These outings remain entirely hands-off. He asks if he “could stay a few days.” Suddenly he’s cohabiting, cooking the steak she buys at Harrod’s and sleeping, chastely, next to her in bed. In Hogg’s life, this must have been an eccentric form of courtship, but in a film about a love affair it feels subversive: during the first third of the movie—and while they debate the legitimacy of Julie’s filmmaking choices—we wonder what the hell is going on. As, no doubt, does she.

Then again, the film is largely about Julie’s failure to see what’s in front of her, both in work and in love. Once their relationship becomes physical, she notices the puncture marks on Anthony’s arm. “Did you hurt yourself?” she asks. “Yeah,” he says, “I don’t know what that is.” When he asks what he should do about it, she says, “I think you should just leave it, and let it go away,” as if she both knows and refuses to know the meaning of what she’s looking at. That this ambiguous and rather suspenseful dialogue takes place during the film’s most tender, conventionally romantic scene suggests something of Hogg’s nimbleness as a storyteller. It’s after this first tryst that Anthony begins asking Julie for money—ten pounds here and there, but with a regularity that begins to seem brutal; she never asks him what the money’s for.

Her ignorance is finally shattered, awfully and hilariously, at a dinner party. She and Anthony have invited an older director and his almost silent girlfriend to dinner. When Anthony leaves the room, the director tells Julie, “You don’t seem druggy to me.” She looks confused. He continues, “I’m not good with euphemism so: habitual heroin user [he gestures toward Anthony’s chair]; trainee Rotarian [he gestures at Julie], which is a good look, I mean it nicely.” This director is played by Richard Ayoade, who is in fact a successful director, though he may be best known to British audiences as a comic actor and a scrupulously deadpan wit on the BBC quiz-show circuit. (His girlfriend is played by his actual wife, actor Lydia Fox, who manages with almost no dialogue to embody the ignored female appendage of an important man.) It works perfectly that Hogg took this unassuming persona and made him the arrogant jerk of her story, as well known to Julie as he is to the movie’s audience.

Once Julie accepts that Anthony is addicted to heroin, things begin to unravel. She is reduced to repeatedly asking her mother for more money for film equipment. Her apartment is ransacked, and Anthony grudgingly acknowledges having sold all her stuff (to pay for his habit, although as usual he blames the inscrutable demands of his job). She’s angry at first, but abruptly folds and tells him she understands that he had his Foreign Office reasons for stealing and refusing to explain himself.

This is one of the moments when the film’s rootedness in autobiography does something marvelous to its realism: in a work of fiction, we’d expect the power dynamic between two people to be suggested in situations that didn’t tax our disbelief. The outrageousness of what actually happened between the young Hogg and her lover is here preserved in all its blatancy; her submissiveness isn’t sanded down into some milder episode in which she might more plausibly allow herself to be deceived. Earlier Anthony had told Julie that he admired film characters who are “very truthful, without necessarily being real,” and you could say that the two of them are very truthful without necessarily being that approximated thing, realistic.

A similar paradox governs the film’s method of construction: though it appears to be hurtling forward to a tragic end, it is also collaged and persistently preoccupied by its own materials. Its verisimilitude works in mysterious ways. To make it, Hogg put together footage shot on 16mm film as well as digital (with a 16mm sensor), plus Super 8 footage from her film school days and some of her old 35mm stills: “I wanted it to have texture,” she told one interviewer. The Souvenir opens in literal stillness, with a montage of Hogg’s old black-and-white photographs from Sunderland, while we hear Julie explaining her film to a radio interviewer.

But this sequence passes quickly and is dominated by the sound of the static and white noise that we hear before the human voices come on. During these first seconds of the movie, the incongruous source that’s evoked is Chris Marker’s La Jetée—a film about not just memory but also time travel into an unimaginable future. The eeriness of the allusion is instantly dispersed when Hogg cuts from the photographs to Julie, in color, hosting the fateful party that brings Anthony into her life. Unexpected contrasts like this interleave almost every scene and could be said to form the substance of the film. Its allusions and juxtapositions place us inside the mind of someone who thinks, and thinks of herself, through movies.

It’s been pointed out that The Souvenir takes its title from the Fragonard painting Anthony brings Julie to see, showing a young woman in a pink satin dress carving her lover’s initials into a tree, but as the film proceeds it seems to chuck this rosy reference in favor of the plain infinitive of the French verb. The movie is an act of remembering, so of course it is a document that invents more than it records.

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    Albertine is also the author of two eloquent memoirs, To Throw Away Unopened (Faber, 2018) and Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys. (Thomas Dunne, 2014), which begins with her explaining candidly and at length why she has never masturbated. So that element of Exhibition, at least, is fictional. 

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    Translated by Anthony Griffin (New York Review Books, 2016).