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…


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