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Public spaces, private lives

Two new films use art-world settings to explore barriers to communication

Viv Albertine and Liam Gillick as a dysfunctional couple in “Exhibition”

Joanna Hogg’s third feature, “Exhibition”, had its premiere at the Locarno Film Festival last month. It stars the musician and film director Viv Albertine (best known as member of post-punk band the Slits) and conceptualist Liam Gillick as D and H, an artist couple selling their home in West London. There is little story as such, rather the film unfolds as a series of episodes and tableaux, laying out creative tensions, sexual anxiety and ennui, and in D’s case strongly suggesting frustration at coming second to H’s clearly more successful career.

The film has something to unsettle everybody. Middle-class couples of a certain age will squirm at the mis-timed communication between its two leads; H’s well-intentioned but self-regarding ego will likely seem very familiar to many women. Those who think artists live a pampered life, devoid of contact with the everyday demands of the wider world, will see their suspicions confirmed on screen. And, with a great deal of the tension created by implication and hint, an air of trepidation permeates the film, creating the constant expectation that something very bad might be about to unfold or will be shown to have happened in the past.

The sparse dialogue and slight awkwardness of the principal actors, both making their debuts, adds to the unease. More often than not, they communicate by intercom from their respective creative spaces. The beautiful but soulless house they live in (the self-designed former home of the architect James Melvin) is the film’s third principal actor. Its fortress-like exterior and shifting internal divisions further isolate the human performers and Hogg makes affecting use of sound as the heavy sliding doors are often heard to open and close at a remove, suggesting an action that leaves one of the principals—more often than not D—along with the audience to guess what may be happening elsewhere.

There’s a subject fit here with Michael Haneke’s or Ian McEwan’s portrayals of creeping middle-class paranoia but Hogg never takes things to those writers’ destructive conclusions. Will D’s forthcoming exhibition allow her to get out from under H’s ego? Will the sale of the house, so central to the way they relate to each other, allow them to breathe? We’ll never know: the low-level and permanent fear that we are teetering on the edge of disaster is all that’s left.

By way of contrast, Jem Cohen’s “Museum Hours” opens in the UK this month following a brief run in New York. His film, set in and around the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, tells of a visitor to the city who befriends a museum guard. The film could in many ways be a companion piece to “Exhibition”. It uses largely untrained actors, and one lead better known as a musician—the Canadian singer-songwriter Mary Margaret O’Hara. It deals with isolation and the social consequences thereof.

Both films contain fantasy sequences presumably in the heads of characters. In “Exhibition”, D imagines herself interviewed on stage by H, while in “Museum Hours”, one sequence imagines the museum visitors naked. Both feature a largely naturalistic dialogue between two main characters. But there the similarities end. While Hogg’s film is claustrophobic and carefully designed, Cohen uses natural light and found scenarios, almost Dogme-style, and increasingly expands the territory he covers, from the airy galleries of the museum to the city at large. And while “Exhibition” centres on the communication dysfunction of its leads, “Museum Hours” is optimistic about the possibility of the breakdown of barriers to understanding, as Anne (O’Hara) and Johann (Bobby Sommer) come to rely on and enjoy one another’s company.

There is also a long sequence where Ela Piplits’s guide lectures visitors on her interpretation of the museum’s Breughels, becoming agitated by one visitor’s crass responses. The end credits roll over what seems to be a spoof audio guide. The suggestion throughout seems to be that if we live too much in our own heads we are barely living. And while, as with “Exhibition”, the future of the principal characters’ relationship is left in the balance, the existential outlook is less bleak. Hogg’s artists are in the world but barely of it. Cohen’s art observers have, at least, found a way to communicate, escaping their isolation and gaining something new from the moment.

“Exhibition” is due to be released in 2014. “Museum Hours” opens in the UK on 6 September.

Bobby Sommer in “Museum Hours”
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