Stewart Lee once referred to Joanna Hogg’s second film Archipelago as “an art film about middle class people on a disappointing holiday”. On one level, he is right. There are also plenty of fair reasons that the words “middle class” have become synonymous with out-of-touch, pampered, petty concerns; the kind of worries people only have when their essential needs are long since taken care of. Throughout Hogg’s four films to date, the major players have been steeped in privilege, and cushioned by a level of comfort that might make them easy to dismiss as unrelatable.
And that’s the thing: we now view media in a world where relatability has become valuable currency. Beyond professional critique, any social media chat about entertainment is littered with comments about feeling seen, about who we have no choice but to stan. This is not to say that we always require our favourites to be likable. Particularly on television, the last decade has seen a steady stream of great, much-loved characters who are terrible people: Walter White, Don Draper, Annalise Keating, Villanelle. A refreshing parade of disagreeable women in particular is a part of what has made the likes of Fleabag so watchable. But when the Phoebe Waller-Bridge phenomenon got its inevitable first piece of widely shared criticism, class was the key issue. Because – other than posh people – who really cares about posh people’s problems?
What makes Fleabag easy to defend – its unrelenting overshare, fourth wall all but shattered, making its main character so much “one of us” that who “us” is becomes largely irrelevant – makes it appear the antithesis to Hogg’s coolly detached work. But ultimately, these vastly different methods find the same desirable thread of resonance. In the end, an appeal to honesty might make class a factor and valuable context but never a barrier.
Much of what makes Archipelago, and Hogg’s debut feature Unrelated, powerful viewing takes place off screen. Both are masterclasses in examining grief and conflict as the elephants in the room – conversations at the edge of frames, far off, almost out of earshot or behind a wall. The camera is largely static, observing. It’s not that Hogg isn’t interested in what people have to say, but that she places as much, if not more, weight on what isn’t said. And it’s true: few of us are likely to address marital difficulties by nipping off to Tuscany to awkwardly flirt with our pal’s nephew (Tom Hiddleston), as Anna (Kathryn Worth) does in Unrelated. But it’s a safe bet all of us can recognise the queasy, humiliating thrill of a questionable fantasy and the desire for an escape from our daily lives. And Edward’s (Hiddleston again) quarter-life crisis in Archipelago is never about the details; it is just as well for all concerned that skipping off to play white saviour in Africa isn’t the norm for the average 25 year-old, but everyone will face crossroads in our lives where we have the lingering suspicion that we’d really rather be given an out from our own decisions.
In fact, what may make Exhibition Hogg’s most difficult film to connect with is that it’s the one that gets closest to its subjects – literally. It moves into their daily lives, directly into their house, rather than choosing a moment in time where they’ve specifically chosen to try to get away. And the lives of two oddball artists selling their architecturally significant home are singularly unrelatable. Punk legend Viv Albertine’s arresting performance notwithstanding, V’s compulsive sexual performance art and coldly repressed public face make it challenging, at first, to pick up the thread through which we can connect ourselves to her – even as the camera comes closer, sometimes claustrophobically, voyeuristically so. We drift occasionally into dreamlike states or cut back and forth across a passionate physical encounter which takes on the eerie detachment of a painting. Hogg’s treatment of sex and nudity in general is so dispassionate, so matter of fact, and so specific to context that it’s not even a question of male vs. female gaze; there’s no mannered lasciviousness because the story and the vision are co-owned by Hogg and her cast. So even as it makes us work harder for it, the note of pure authenticity here opens the door to appeal beyond its social construct.
The release of Hogg’s biggest commercial success to date – the semi-autobiographical and exquisitely painful The Souvenir – has increased interest in her collaborative approach. Hogg does not write traditional screenplays; she labours intensively over comprehensive documents that flesh out the story, context and character (for The Souvenir she added some of her own diaries, and the set – which more or less faithfully recreated a real flat she lived in – included her own furniture). From the very beginning, the plan is for the film to reach realisation on set, to come to life in the moment and in the hands of all involved. To that end, she sometimes withholds information from the cast for the first take; The Souvenir’s lead, Honor Swinton Byrne, was not forewarned of a devastating revelation dropped with oily insouciance by Richard Ayoade in a pivotal scene.
For both Exhibition and The Souvenir, despite extensive searches, Hogg was days from shooting before her leads were fully cast. She can keep things personal; Albertine is a friend, Swinton Byrne the daughter of film school pal Tilda Swinton. She frequently packs her films with unknowns – Unrelated marked Hiddleston’s feature debut – and non-actors. She offers no rehearsal time and films in sequence, nurturing the natural synergies between the cast and their characters. That immersion leads to those uncomfortably real conversations, full of gaps and overlaps. So while they’re inescapably middle class in tone and content, they still feel unquestionably real.
Most importantly, Hogg builds self-awareness into the structure. Her clinical, lingering lens forces the central figures in her stories to either interrogate themselves or have their lack of doing so cast in an unflattering light. Self-absorption is a stick many of Hogg’s characters beat themselves with, even while indulging in it. The Souvenir calls it out explicitly, as fledgling filmmaker Julie talks about wanting to break out of her bubble and make films about the industrial north, receiving a doubtful reception; in Archipelago Edward uses an argument over whether to include the hired chef at meals to bolster his self-righteous feelings of moral superiority. With it, he cracks open a Pandora’s box of unspoken family resentment that is, once again, all too easily understood by anyone.
Hogg’s work will likely never feel especially representative of any but a very specific, elite group of individuals, but it doesn’t need to derive any of its power from that. It does it from a direct appeal to shared humanity, finding its relevance in the universal language of silences and stares. She uses the truth of her background, class and cultural touchpoints to speak unflinchingly to the truth in ours. So even if that “disappointing holiday” is far beyond our reach, we can through it find ourselves somewhere very close to home.