Life and Nothing But
Julien Allen on Joanna Hogg (Archipelago)
As the titles of Joanna Hogg’s Archipelago (2010) materialize onto a charcoal screen, there is no musical accompaniment, only birdsong and the sound of the wind in the trees: the background music of life. A third, barely perceptible noise emerges: a soft thud, followed by a gentle smear, repeated periodically, as if someone were parting their closed lips by exhaling in soft, short breaths. When the darkness gives way to the film’s first shot, we see that this new sound is from a paintbrush, being dabbed against a freshly painted landscape in close-up, by an unknown hand. We cut to another static camera tableau, wider and from further back, but with the same painting at its center. The subject of the artwork—the real landscape—is now visible around the outside of the canvas: a bleached and rocky seaside vista under an off-white sky; the artist is standing in the shot with his back to camera, perched on a low cliff, putting the finishing touches on. The wind continues to blow, bending the treeline, shifting the landscape before our eyes while the tableau at its center stays the same. The painting is more vibrant and colorful than the scene it is depicting, its hues are warmer, but not by much. It has still captured its essential sparseness. How this unknown artist paints—this is how Joanna Hogg films her world. She is resolutely faithful to its mysterious, blighted beauty; yet with the delicate, evanescent touch of a fine artist, she subtly enriches and colors our emotional response to it.
Archipelago tells the story of a family reunion, which takes place on Tresco, one of a remote collection of islands off the coast of Southwest England known as the Scilly Isles. It reunites Edward (Tom Hiddleston) with his sister Cynthia (Lydia Leonard) in a house they used to vacation in as children. Their mother Patricia (Kate Fahy) has organized the get-together as a farewell to Edward, who has quit his job in high finance to go to Africa to work for an AIDS charity. Two other people are with them on the island: the painter (from the opening shot) who has been commissioned to give the women art lessons, and Rose, a young woman from the mainland who has been employed to cook and clean for the family (both are played by nonprofessional actors). The film makes no attempt to hide the trappings of the upper middle-class world Hogg knows and relates to: Edward’s arrival by helicopter, the taller-and-finer-than-average wine glasses, the help, the art lessons, a partridge shoot... In fact, Archipelago deals openly with questions of class, but it is not about class. Like all three of Hogg's features to date, it is about how people draw from their physical environment while striving for a better understanding of their lives. Archipelago’s main characters are collectively titular, in that they are bonded by name and physical proximity, but emotionally isolated from one another, like a collection of islands. Hogg’s film presents a very modern, classless social malaise in unflinching close-up: the near collapse of positive, meaningful human interaction. Her autopsy of this family is quiet and meticulous, and she leaves not one section of the corpse uncut.
An early warning signal of impending unease, the very first audible dialogue in the film (once the two smiling women have ridden their bikes behind an open-backed van bringing a grinning Edward up to the house) is unexpectedly awkward. Out of this bucolic homecoming atmosphere, a brief exchange hatches around the fact that Cynthia, who arrived earlier that week, has taken Edward’s childhood room. Before he can even object, she apologizes, insisting it was just until he got here and that she would move her stuff out; but Edward doesn’t mind at all, he’ll sleep in the attic room, which he repairs to with a sigh. If we ignore (as the film eventually does) the potential Proustian injury of this scenario, what’s most striking about the scene is that it constitutes the sort of utterly banal, quotidian altercation that normally doesn’t find its way into a script. But in these actors’ mouths, the sense of mild embarrassment and silliness takes on an unexpected, portentous force. The brother and sister speak as if they rarely see each other (which is probable, but also exhibitive of their relationship) and are trying to postpone the confrontations, which they know will inevitably emanate from their renewed familiarity.
In keeping with Hogg’s decision—common to all her films—to elide non-diegetic music throughout, the entire film is also shot in natural light, so that this first conversation and numerous other sequences in the film play out in the penumbra of an unlit house, concentrating the viewer’s gaze, accentuating every apparent hunch of the shoulders or slump of the head, sharpening our ear to every vocal inflection and its implications of discontent. The family’s first substantial exchange, at the dinner table on the first night, unearths Cynthia’s cynicism about Edward’s decision to quit his secure position owing to what she perceives as a liberal-minded, early midlife crisis. She affects—unconvincingly—to admire his courage and principles, but counters that it’s a shame he thinks he’s too special to stick it out at work “like the rest of us.” Leonard—a British stage actress of some repute—is terrific as Cynthia, whose misanthropy seems to emanate from a hidden and unexplained anxiety of her own. Where precisely this deficiency comes from is not important to the plot, it is just significant that it exists and that all the characters—close and distant—need to cope with it.
Later on, as the protagonists sit together in the lounge and Rose quietly gets on with her chores around them, Edward pulls at a little metaphorical thread in the family’s frayed canvas by—politely and unpatronizingly—asking Rose where she is from. Rose takes this, not unreasonably, as an invitation to embark upon a conversation: a brief one, but which we can tell nonetheless lasts a fraction too long for Cynthia and her mother’s tastes. As Edward’s “over-friendly” interactions with Rose persist in subsequent scenes, the matter comes to a head on the second night when Edward proposes that Rose—who is after all, cooking for the three of them—be allowed to sit with them at dinner. This sequence, played out in clipped remarks and murmured asides, is understated and viscerally brilliant: an intellectual gut-punch attacking all impulses—liberal and illiberal—that an audience might harbor. The emotional dynamics of Archipelago are made up of these tiny, supposedly inconsequential fragments of dyspeptic interplay, all of which build to an immense and magnificently realized mosaic of disaffection.
In all three of her feature films, which also include Unrelated (2008) and Exhibition (2013), Hogg’s characters are muted and hesitant, enveloped in a shroud of emotional dyslexia. But despite this thematic consistency, which could have turned into an authorial tic, none of them feel unreal and, crucially, none feel like characters who really belong in a film. They don’t tick any screenwriter’s boxes, they haven’t been finessed or enriched through work-shopping (à la Mike Leigh), they aren’t “salt of the earth” types for whom an audience might intrinsically feel sorrow or sympathy. They’re privileged, largely unremarkable people who want to be left alone, and the world of film would normally oblige them. Furthermore, they don’t follow familiar cinematic patterns: nothing within the structure of Archipelago drives its characters forward emotionally in any traditional way, neither the plot nor their interplay with the other characters. They’re each simply adrift in their own uncertainty, like many of us in real life. The films are personal, in the sense that Hogg herself is—and readily admits to being—socially awkward, shy, and uncommunicative; her films speak with disarming eloquence of this struggle to articulate and connect.
In Hogg’s debut feature, the shattering existential drama Unrelated, a middle-aged woman holidays in Tuscany with a larger, younger group to which she is only loosely connected. The holiday-makers find any possible means not to communicate with each other meaningfully: they play games, tell anecdotes, or cling inelegantly to the superficial. For the most part, when words are spoken in the film, precious little of consequence is said, but the audience is able to glean so much from what is unvoiced that when a genuine emotional connection is made (when we are finally allowed to hear feelings expressed, rather than guess them) it becomes vastly more powerful and cathartic. This conceit is developed and intensified in Archipelago as the surrounding environment—from the landscapes of Tuscany to the smaller, somber island of Tresco—closes in a little further. In Exhibition the environment in question is a house: the emotional narrative is wrought from the central characters' relationship with their home and their decision to sell it. At this rate, one almost expects Hogg’s next project (currently in the editing room) to be set entirely in a cupboard.
Discussions about cinema vérité often fall back on the recognition that only a hidden camera with unknowing subjects can ever come close to capturing absolute truth, being the only documentary format where the participants behave as if they are not being filmed. With Joanna Hogg’s fiction films, we get a strange parallel effect: the actors of course behave in accordance with their remit as if they are not being filmed, but one also gets a strong instinctive sense with Hogg that the characters shouldn’t be being filmed. This sensation arises because these small, outwardly transient (but inwardly damaging) vicissitudes seem too private to be shared with us. The camera, unmoving and unmoved, still seems to the audience to be imposing, even though to the characters it doesn’t exist. By making us eavesdrop, as a child might listen to its parents arguing, Hogg’s borderline anti-cinematic approach to character and plot delivers uniquely thrilling, breathing cinema.
By way of example, in both Unrelated and Archipelago, the two most affecting conversations are one-sided. A main character takes a phone call and stays silent while the person on the end of the line speaks. In Unrelated it is the heroine, Anna, talking to her boyfriend Alex, whom she has come on holiday to get away from. In Archipelago Patricia is on the phone to her estranged husband, whom she is trying to entice back. (Patricia inexplicably believes that she can somehow transmute such a reunion into a positive experience for all of them, so she is hoping he will join them on the island—he never does.) Hogg’s static camera, unyielding and pitiless, captures every agonizing second of both conversations. At times, we see the figure holding the phone but hear nothing for what seems like an eternity, leaving us an abundance of time to imagine and share the despair of the participants. Had either character been aware of the camera, they would have waved it away, or—like Romy Schneider in Żuławski's That Most Important Thing: Love—pleaded through tears for it to be turned off. This brutal, but immaculately balanced and ultimately empathetic effect gives Hogg’s films an almost overwhelmingly tangible sentimentality. Her depiction of inexpressiveness is deeply expressive. Her silences are unbearable and beautiful at once.
It is a telling indication of the rare power of Hogg’s technique that critics have so quickly reached for the influences. Upon its release, Unrelated was promptly compared to Ozu (for its stillness and familial pain) and Eric Rohmer (for its many thematic and plot-based resemblances to one of Hogg's favorite films, The Green Ray). Superficial observations of this kind risk cheapening the old masters as much as they do the new, partly because in Hogg’s case the tapestry of influences is more complex and her artistry itself is more personal, fresh and unique. Hogg is an ardent cinephile who was once lent a Super 8 camera in her youth by Derek Jarman, whom she had met and unwittingly charmed in a coffee bar in Soho. With it, she made a short film (1988’s Caprice) with Jarman’s collaborator Tilda Swinton, which was rejected by the BFI Film School for being “too frivolous.” Stung by this criticism, Hogg spent the first 20 years of her career working primarily in television, while constantly indulging her own passion for cinema. At the height of London’s rep scene in the 1980s she would hoover up numerous double bills at the likes of the Scala in Kings Cross, Riverside Studios in Hammersmith and the Electric in Portobello Road. (Since the relative demise of London repertory houses, she has founded a pop-up cinema group called A Nos Amours, which programmed the entirety of Chantal Akerman’s body of work on various screens around London from 2014 to 2015.) Her inspirations also come from fine art, architecture, and her first profession: photography. Her debut film was at aged 47, by which time in film terms she had seen, digested, read and studied more than many.
Her strongest influences may be on her meticulous formal approach and her philosophical view of the extremities of the camera. Beyond purely aesthetic considerations, her tendency to use static, wide-angle shots works towards a psychological exploration of the limits of the frame. If the static frame acts as a window—to use Bazinian rhetoric—on an imaginary version of real life, for Hogg, the window is more physical and obtrusive, like a picture frame, even while the scene inside is dramatized as excessively real. So Hogg deliberately juxtaposes naturalism and formalism in the most direct way, risking diluting both but actually sharpening our emotional focus further and more deeply than we might have imagined. While little on the surface of Hogg’s cinema resembles Bresson’s, her formal certainty, inducing the audience’s imagination as to what is happening at and outside of the extremities of the frame, is Bressonian. Beyond this, her willingness to depict characters simply existing, rather than acting or evolving, owes much to Rossellini; and there is something distinctly Malickian about Hogg’s view of nature as a vast mysterious canvas within which humans bob about, lost and exposed.
But while it is always tempting to find elevating parallels between forceful new voices and established greats (as if this were required to consecrate the newcomer's arrival on the scene), it is rarely possible to contemplate—especially with respect to a British filmmaker—that they might be writing their own cinematic grammar. What Joanna Hogg is clearest about is her dedication to her own method (which may explain how someone so brilliant has made only three features in ten years). As she told The Observer in 2014 when asked about whether she started making films in order to achieve greater recognition: “It wasn’t, ‘Oh, I haven't become famous,’ it was more, ‘I haven’t expressed those feelings I feel very intensely. The kind of feelings to do with expressing my way of seeing the world. That was what was important to me.” Due recognition for Joanna Hogg might still be tantalizingly out of reach, but she has truly and gloriously found her means of expression.
Two of Hogg’s British contemporaries—both of whom seem to share her taste for depicting nightmarish excursions—Ben Wheatley (Sightseers) and Peter Strickland (Berberian Sound Studio), have undeservedly made bigger waves than her. But they also share something else in common: they both greatly admire Hogg’s work. Strickland—hardly an obvious bedfellow, given that music and sound are fundamental to his cinema—name checks her films frequently in interviews and Wheatley once forced himself to confess to Mark Kermode in The Observer that he had long disliked Joanna Hogg’s films…until he watched them: “I bit the bullet [after working with Hiddleston on High Rise]…I just thought, ‘Oh wow!’ It taught me something about myself and my own prejudices because they were exactly the kind of cinema that I like.”
Ironically, given the transparently personal nature of Hogg’s work, Archipelago may be her most accomplished film precisely because it is not so directly about herself. Anna, the main character in Unrelated is a clear alter ego of Joanna Hogg, and in Exhibition, the female protagonist—a performance artist, played by Viv Albertine from punk band The Slits—has dreams that are in fact recreations of Hogg’s own dreams. With Archipelago, the director gets to be what she is—emotionally speaking—best at being: an outsider, a shy and lonely eavesdropper who stays silent and at a remove, observing without moving, refusing by the steadfastness of her camera to influence proceedings or force our reactions to them. She simply lets us divine the thoughts and feelings of the characters on-screen, so these feelings take root inside us and refuse to relinquish their hold.