Every so often a film comes along that seems intentionally designed to test the limits of its audience. In action movies, for instance, one can’t help but ask if Michael Bay is taking the piss with each successive Transformers sequel, wondering just how little plot and character development he can get away with, providing he fills the screen with explosions, giant robots and the pert bosoms of actresses half his age. Pretty much the same could be said of the art-house crowd and Joanna Hogg’s latest, if you replace explosions with shots of bespoke Swedish furniture, giant robots with vague dialogues about conceptual art, and Megan Fox with Slits guitarist Viv Albertine.
Exhibition follows two artists, H (played by real-life conceptual artist Liam Gillick) and D (Albertine), as they go through the process of selling their spacious London home. The film is made up of scenes from their everyday life, including dinner with friends from across the road and meetings with an estate agent, played by Tom Hiddleston. H works in an upstairs room (though at what, exactly, we never find out), while D spends a lot of time faffing about on a stool. And that’s about it.
To call the film plotless would be to invite comparison with a fragmented, dreamlike work such as Tarkovsky’s Mirror. Exhibition isn’t plotless. In offering us two fairly commonplace characters (at least in the middle class, affluent and mono-ethnic corner of London in which it’s set), and in presenting these moments from their life in chronological order, it reaches for a plot, without having the nerve to tell a story.
With its focus on the glacial, modern interior design of H and D’s lavish pad, Exhibition’s bum-numbing 101 minutes feel not so much like a movie as a particularly uneventful episode of Grand Designs. In its asking us to sympathise with D’s agony over having to move out of this dream home, the feeling isn’t so much one of a Brideshead or Il Gattopardo-style elegy, prompting our sympathy with the well-to-do in a time of crisis, but rather a big screen adaptation of the “First World Problems” hashtag and meme.
The real world, in which police sirens wail and bad things are happening elsewhere, is alluded to in the film’s admittedly excellent sound design, which does much of the heavy lifting when it comes to D’s character development. Albertine herself drifts through the role ghost-like, more or less a blank canvas, and apart from one – and only one – scene of confrontation (someone horribly working class parks in front of their garage) Gillick’s H is barely a character at all. Are their vague conversations about art meant to provoke thought or inspire contempt? I really couldn’t tell. If it’s the former, then culturally we’re doomed. If it’s the latter, then this is satire without teeth.
Ultimately, Exhibition is about very little of any consequence. Any interesting ideas (is D a little agoraphobic? When she searches every cupboard, is she checking for burglars or just looking at each one for the last time?) are abandoned almost as soon as they are introduced. This isn’t just a slow film, it’s a film in which nothing happens, and Hogg makes the mistake of thinking that these are one and the same, that an absence of character development, plot or suspense are the hallmarks of intellectual or artistic rigour. They are not.
Adding to the frustration of having lost over an hour and a half watching this film – waiting for something, anything to happen – is the almost universal praise it received from the British press. Five star reviews in the Guardian and Times. Four stars from the Telegraph and Empire. Interestingly, once you stray outside the UK’s Londoncentric and incestuous cultural scene, the reviews cool off considerably, nowhere more so than in this bang-on assessment from the Village Voice.
Ultimately, there’s nothing wrong with films that explore, or attempt to explore the middle and upper classes in an age of bleak austerity; characters from all backgrounds are worthy of attention. What grates with Exhibition is its navel-gazing. This is Kensington property porn masquerading as art, and at a time when so many are struggling to put food on their own tables, let alone keep roofs over their heads, that just feels appallingly crass.