I am quicksilver, the fox in the night, emotional about the poetry, love & desire in scent, read me.

Monday 1 August 2011

Unsaid, Uncertainty and Landscape: ‘Cinema Art by Joanna Hogg’

Still from Unrelated treated by the Silver Fox

I wonder how many of you have seen the work of Joanna Hogg?
She has made two films to date. Unrelated in 2007 and Archipelago in 2010.
Both films are atmospheric, poised and painfully beautiful portrayals of group and family dynamics, pain, uncertainty and social and personal awkwardness. They look like art, still and throbbing with sound and a shifting palette of muted colours. They echo with silences, unspoken pain, turmoil, secrets, frustration and lost opportunities. The characters seems real and behave with great tenderness and force. There is absurdity and pretension and wonderful bursts of warmth, humour and sensual flashes of desire that licks at the ankles like a teasing tide.  But most of all there is melancholy, a much neglected condition, rarely afforded a glance or word these days. And hardly ever in cinema, and especially British cinema. Misery yes, groaning and moaning about one’s lots in life, all very kitchen-sinky, work-related, class-riven. But this is different. More studied and cerebral.
Hogg writes and directs, allowing the cast to live and breathe the script, adding themselves in, interacting with the words, situations and dilemmas. This careful and studied interaction with her work has created a fluid reality that draws you in so close it is sometimes hard to breathe as you entangle yourself so intimately in her world.  
There is discomfiture and that peculiar British embarrassment of social pain in her work that makes it so utterly compelling. As real and heartbreaking as to hear the knife scraping the bone. Hogg trained as a photographer and this ability to capture stillness and distilled intensity fills every frame of her atmospheric filmmaking. Stylistically the films have tremendous beauty. Hogg’s training has given her a potent eye. She understands the power of simplicity and quietude.
Both films are preoccupied with belonging and fitting in, adjustment and the complex and treacherous pathways of friends and family. Unrelated is set against the backdrop of a hazy Tuscan summer. Not just the Tuscany of Mortimer and Spark but the industrial dry expanses of factories and motorways that vanish from view in TV land’s romantic dramas. Archipelago unfolds during a tense family get together on the Scilly Isles, a group of strange and haunted islands off the coast of Cornwall, against a backdrop of rain, winds and dark, scudding skies.
Both films examine characters transfigured by landscape. As a fan of E.M. Forster I am always fascinated by the inner and outer journeys travelled literary of filmic characters as they come into contact with immovable external forces and emotions. Their psychological, sensual transformations are often triggered by contact with new landscapes and the components of perceived alien realities. Shocked and changed by the leaving behind of conventions and moving towards a sense of a more liberated love and life. In A Passage to India, Adela Quested’s hallucinatory experience in the Malabar caves sets her on a path that will alter her life and those around her forever. In A Room with a View Lucy Honeychurch’s collision with rugged, sensual Italy, the stabbing in the square and her kiss in the field of violets awaken, albeit painfully, a ravenous craving for love on her terms. Whenever I read Maurice it is the images of gardens, leaves and exteriors, the outside, that resonate so strongly as Maurice wanders, aching for completion away from the furnished rooms and well-lit houses of his up-bringing.
Forster said only connect....  This maxim applies to Hogg’s work. Silences between words are deafening and the veneers are paper thin. Meals are eaten, wine drunk, conversations casually manipulated, games played, tears shed. But truths are carefully shielded and if they are spilled, they have heart breaking ramifications that burst out into the open and then are swallowed up again in that terribly British way.
Unrelated is about Anna, a 40 something woman, whose relationship is in crisis. She has no kids and is one of those people who seem mildly irritating, clinging dangerously close to youth and not really moving forward, dissatisfied with things, unsure and uneasy with herself, not trusting herself to enjoy or let go. Not wanting to burden others or annoy, but by downplaying and avoiding conflict actually magnify them and only irritate more. Curiously unsexy, but oddly erotic, Kathryn Worth is extraordinary as Anna. She is in turn moving, vulnerable and infuriating to watch. Hogg wanted someone quite unique to play Anna and auditioned many different types of actresses before hearing about a neighbour of a friend who had trained as an actress and was now working on the casting side of the business.

The choice was perfect. The first time I watched Unrelated I wasn’t sure I liked Anna at all, her meekness, her apologising, her relentless desperation to fit in. She struggles to find a role on the holiday. She doesn’t want to spend time with her old school friend and her husband and is instead drawn to the unpredictable son Oakley and his mates. Her collapsing relationship with her partner is told via snatched mobile calls as Anna jogs each morning. Her uneasy movement between the adults and the older teens is tense and deeply uncomfortable at times. The trading of secrets, stories, drunken games and implied sexuality is witty, yearning and edgy but tinged with a realisation that sooner or later something will have to give.

Still from Archipelago treated by the Silver Fox

Archipelago is about a family reunion, a son joining his mother and sister on the isles of Scilly. An opposite setting to Unrelated - seas, rain, ink-stained skies, water everywhere. Tears and a pervasive bleakness. The son, Edward, is dissatisfied with life and wants to travel and do good deeds. His sister is cut up with raging anger and resentment. Their mother is distracted and melancholy, loving her family seems to have cost her deeply. Her husband’s absence, like that of Anna’s partner, in Unrelated is slowly pulling her apart. And as in Unrelated this disintegration is played out over a series of increasingly fraught phone calls. His void makes her pain seem so isolated. There is a scene where she is shouting off camera as the siblings eat. The mother returns to the table and they all carry on, everything unspoken, her distress ignored and tucked away.
Another character is a buoyant young woman they hire to cook for them. She brings an unsettling presence to the house, raising awareness of class boundaries for Edward and elements of subconscious rivalry for the sister. Hogg indulges in foodie metaphors including an uncomfortable discussion between the cook and Edward about pain free ways to kill lobsters which speaks volumes about the pent up silences and internal sufferings trapped between the walls of the holiday cottage.
I really liked the character of the painter who is teaching the mother to paint with watercolour. He spends his time dotted about in all weather, capturing the elements, observing and silently moving through the landscape. There is something a little mage-like about him and also something a little creepy. His sexuality seems fluid, he seems to court the mother and then Edward has a deeply odd conversation with him in the Botanic Gardens about personal directions, emotions and belief in one’s own true feelings and the realisation and power of following one’s true desires.
Both films deal with a dissatisfaction with one’s lot, a malaise of the upper middle classes, a subject rarely covered in British contemporary cinema. French cinema is very well served by the dissection of the so called chattering classes. The French are not afraid of talking or conversational cinema; the surrealism and pain of family angst and the burying of emotion under convention and facade. Dominink Moll’s Lemming, Olivier Assayas’ Summer Hours, Michel Haneke’s Hidden and Arnauld Desplchein’s A Christmas Tale and Kings and Queen are all articulate and moving films about the silences and gaps in the lives of families and lovers. Hogg is a self-confessed lover of French cinema and has brings this awareness and passion to her work. You see it in the dedication to character and the way she pushes the viewer through moments that British viewers are not normally used to seeing portrayed with such scalpel sharp precision. These scenes are hard to watch and resonate long after the films finish. Because of Hogg’s use of locked camera positions and no close ups, many scenes have tremendous power.
In Unrelated there are two such scenes for me. A drunken giddy skinny dipping pool incident in late evening with all the friends and family partying with laughter, booze and high jinks suddenly turns very odd and menacing when Anna is left in the pool naked with the three boys. There is no real threat, but somehow like a subtle shift in the weather, a breeze springing up from nowhere, the mood alters. Conversation dies and the pool becomes something very different. Waiting for Anna to get out of the pool is very difficult to watch. You feel very worried for her, angry too, for her stupidity, embarrassed for the boys too, and aware they are slaves to hormones and vaguely aware that the son, Oakley seems pleased it has turned out like this. Quite a range of emotions for a seemingly simple scene.
The other scene is another use of Hogg’s use of absence and off screen for dramatic effect. A titanic row between Oakley and his father is played out in the villa behind closed doors and open windows as the others sit mutely around the pool, waiting for the storm to pass. Hogg really pushes the length of the argument, the language used is very raw and you can barely breathe as it unfolds. As it ends, like the poolside listeners, you exhale and look guiltily at the floor, glad it’s over.
In Archipelago the pivotal scene is a tense luncheon in a empty restaurant to celebrate a birthday. Shot in tones of blue and grey, the atmosphere is taut like highly strung wire. The sister Cynthia starts to pick apart the atmosphere, starting with the choice of table, the view etc. She forces everyone to argue with her. She complains about her food and sends it back, making painful comments about Edward’s pathological inability to complain. He gets up and leaves. The tension and pain in this scene is very hard to watch. Everyone trying desperately hard to enjoy something they know they are all hating. Convention and forced familial bonds make for uncomfortable viewing. The family dynamic is ripped and torn. The jealousies swirl and bleed like the painter’s landscapes in the rain.  
There is no music in either Unrelated or Archipelago. Unrelated uses insects, cicadas, the crackles of sunshine as a hazy soundtrack to Anna’s journey to slow realisation that she doesn’t really fit into either camp and needs to return home and mend what she had. Interestingly, Hogg does little rehearsing and few takes. The actors cast for the family and friends in Unrelated arrived a few weeks before filming started to settle in, get to know each other and create a sense of something natural and rhythmic. Kathryn Worth, playing Anna, bravely agreed to turn up later, just before filming actually started to add authenticity to her role as her character does in the film, rocking up awkwardly to join the family holiday and entering an already established dynamic.
Archipelago is scored with rain and wind, drops of water on window panes, the sound of wind in the trees. The contrast in settings in the two films is quite striking but thematically they are hauntingly close. This is helped tremendously by the casting of Tom Hiddleston in the role of Edward in Archipelago and as Oakley in Unrelated. Tom played Loki in the recent Thor and the character of Magnus Martinsson in Branagh’s Wallander.

He is an odd looking actor, all textured hair and fleeting smiles. Amazing bone structure and a unique tonal quality to his voice. His two roles for Hogg are utterly different but somehow echo each other. Sensual, quietly manipulative, lost yet determined to be lost somehow. In Unrelated he draws Anna close with pally confidences, the cool factor and easy body language, a satyr-like charm and an uneasy sensuality that she recognises but does not entirely trust. As Edward he is a little more buttoned up, but just as charming and sensuous, his mother’s favourite, hated for this by his unhappy and bitter sister. Coasting through life on charm and looks, waiting for something to happen, and not really sure what. Wanting to do good but his attempts are misguided and off kilter, as demonstrated by his slightly obsessive attempts to entourage the young cook to be included more into the family, sitting and eating with them etc. He spends a lot of time in the kitchen, watching her, listening to her stories, wondering about her. His procrastination, clumsiness and uneasiness around people often leave unsettling and perplexing questions as to his intent.
In his Notes on Cinematography Robert Bresson wrote:
Let it be the feelings that bring about the events. Not the other way.’
This quote was mentioned by Joanna Hogg in an interview she gave after the making of Unrelated and it explains perfectly her beautiful approach to cinema. Years ago I was lucky enough to work in a small arthouse cinema and saw some amazing films. The Piano, Short Cuts, Ruby in Paradise, The Baby of Macon, Farewell my Concubine, Un Coeur en Hiver, Wings of Desire, Jarman’s Blue. So many beautiful films. I lost myself in some fabulous images. The list goes on. Seeing Derek Jarman at the premiere of Blue was unbearably moving, blind and so ill, he died soon after. I grew up adoring his work; The Garden is still one of my favourite films.

I have never quite forgotten the impact of seeing Jane Campion's film The Piano at an 11am press screening on a hot sticky festival morning. I know everyone knows the story now and the over familiar cyclic Nyman soundtrack. But that day, seeing it for the first time, the camerawork, the scenery, the buttoned up sexuality and the spinning whirling piano music shocked me to tears. The scene of Holly Hunter sinking into the mud, skirts ballooning out after her finger is cut off still fills me with horror and wonder. This is the power of cinema, the visceral grip on the heart and mind that elevates it to an art form. As Archipelago unfolded in front of me I felt the same trembling and raw emotions, the power of the unsaid, and the shifting, passionate nature of landscapes.
I am intensely moved by Joanna Hogg’s work. Each viewing offers up little details I have missed. Like walking along the same beach each day and catching something glinting in the sand that wasn’t there the day before. For me, Archipelago is the better film, more mature, darker and rawer, like the elements scouring the film itself. But in Unrelated Hogg set out her artistic manifesto with verve and virtuosity. She is perhaps our most important filmmaker and artist at work just now. The combination of social pain, image, sound, conversational entrapment, beauty and a very British sensuality makes her work unique and very moving to experience.

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