Absent Relations:
The Films of Joanna Hogg

Earlier this year The Souvenir made its world premiere at Sundance where it immediately became one of the most talked about films at the festival before it had even secured the World Cinema Grand Prize. It tells the story of a young woman played by Honor Swinton Byrne (daughter of Tilda Swinton) navigating a toxic relationship as she attends film school. It has since become a staple of most anticipated lists and has been acquired by A24 for release this May.

But who is the director behind this film? Digging into the filmography of Joanna Hogg you will find a powerful and unique voice, an artist who has been quietly honing her talents for the last 30 years. Joanna Hogg’s path to her feature film debut in 2007 was a long time coming. She started her career first as an advertising photographer, went on to filming music videos, to working in British Television.

Early on in her career, Hogg had crossed paths with the legendary British director Derek Jarman whose radical films Blue & Jubilee had influenced a generation. She had asked him if she could work on one of his films, Jarman instead had lent Hogg his camera and urged her to make her own. With Jarman as a mentor, she began to shoot experimental films. It was one of these films that got her entrance into the National Film & Television School, a school that produced iconic directors like Terrence Davies and Lynne Ramsey, as well as legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins.

Her graduation project was a short film called Caprice (1986) which starred a then-unknown Tilda Swinton, credited as Matilda Swinton, playing a young woman going on an Oz-style adventure into a dream world of a fashion magazine. Caprice is a far stretch from the minimalism that would define Hogg’s aesthetic. Instead, it is a technicolor dream mirroring and paying homage to Powell & Pressburger’s The Red Shoes, cheekily crossed with 80s music video styles. Although it’s currently unavailable to stream, you can find this bizarre gem as a bonus feature on the DVD for Hogg’s 2013 film Exhibition.

Following her graduation Joanna Hogg went into directing British Television, directing shows like London Bridge, Casualty, and Staying Alive, as well as an EastEnders TV movie: Dot’s Story. However, after over a decade in television, she had grown weary of the restrictions and limitations placed on her in the field and began work on her first feature film. Unrelated (2007) premiered at the London Film Festival and was a critical success, winning the FIPRESCI prize at the festival.

Her two features that followed: Archipelago (2010) and Exhibition (2013) have each proven to be stronger than the last, and each worthy of significantly more attention than they have received. With the impending release of The Souvenir, it’s a perfect time explore her filmography, and contextualize that this new film is no anomaly, but rather just one more step in the work of a major contemporary director who only continues to grow in her powers.

Unrelated

(dir. Joanna Hogg, 2007)

Joanna Hogg’s feature film debut Unrelated, starring Kathryn Worth and featuring a then-unknown Tom Hiddleston, premiered at the London Film Festival in 2007. While for Hiddleston this served as a tremendous break out role, it’s an absolute tragedy that Worth has not reached the same level of acclaim given her fantastic performance

The story follows Anna, played by Worth, a woman who attempts to find solace within a looming mid-life crisis by inserting herself into a friends family vacation in Tuscany. “I wanted to depict a woman well into her forties who was still struggling to understand who she is.’ Hogg says ‘A woman unhappy in her own skin, who has never taken responsibility for her life and is drifting like a teenager.”

What proceeds is one uncomfortable moment after another as Anna finds herself at odds with both her middle-aged friends as well as their young adult offspring. “I will forever be on the periphery of things,” Anna confesses to her friend. A line that perfectly defines the composition of most shots, as we spend the film watching Anna get lost inside Joanna Hogg’s static frames. Whether in a crowd, with the family, or even in the street alone, there is a prevailing sense that she is out of place and out of sync. A particularly perfect example of this is Anna awkwardly sitting alone at the breakfast table as the household hustles and bustles, maneuvering around her as if she was furniture.

Imagine the bourgeois summer home from Call Me By Your Name, but rather than the tense unspoken aching of young love, we are instead an outsider desperately trying to find their place in this surrogate family. Periodically we get a glimpse into the world that Anna is escaping from by hearing her side of her phone conversations with her husband, a motif that recurs throughout Joanna Hogg’s films.

“Family just isn’t two people on their own” Anna proclaims in one of the phone calls pushing toward the heart of the crisis. Anna yearns to build a family and fears that now in her 40s, she has finally run out of time. As this throughline becomes clearer, the emotional severity surfaces from under the dry wit and, driven by Worth’s great performance, leaves a resonating effect in its wake.

For fans of: Joining your friend on their vacation abroad and immediately regretting it.

Where to stream Unrelated: Kanopy

Archipelago

(dir. Joanna Hogg, 2010)

In her second feature, Hogg dives deeper into some of the family dynamics explored in Unrelated. Once again, the film focuses on another vacation, although this time we are enveloped in the experience from a number of different perspectives. Additionally, the sunny vistas of Tuscany are replaced with the dour clouds and the brooding ocean of Tresco in Cornwall, England. Reflecting the title of the film the family here is presented as a series of islands onto themselves, burying their complex inner worlds under small talk, and only becoming their authentic selves when they retire to their separate rooms at the end of the day.

Tom Hiddleston takes on a bigger role here, as well as a sharp contrast to the brash carefree youth he played in Unrelated. His character, Edward is consumed by indecision and tension as he prepares to set off on a volunteer trip abroad leaving a high powered position behind. Much like Anna in Unrelated, Edward is a character struggling to find his place, and while we get deeper glimpses into each of the family member’s inner workings, he is the most developed.

One of the first and most memorable images in the film is the family sitting together in the living room. Mother, son, and daughter sit in silence staring at one another. The fireplace is set in the center of the frame, and above it, an empty square where a painting used to hang. Much like this painting, we quickly learn through snippets of phone conversations that the father will not be present. His absence quietly dominates the film as Edward attempts to fill his father’s void and fails. This is further reflected by the clumsy rearranging of seating positions at each family dinner, sometimes with non-family joining.

The painting instructor and the cook, who are the only other characters the family interacts with are played by non-actors, a trend with Joanna Hogg’s films which adds a further layer of realism. Additionally, while Unrelated featured a slight undercurrent of class politics, Archipelago brings the issue of class up to the surface. We see significant sections from Rose’s point of view showing her working as the family navigates from one tantrum to another. These sections poignantly highlight some of the absurdity of these tensions and crises which seem to solely exist in the vacuum of upper-class privilege.

The majority of the film oscillates between the open landscape and the narrow passageways and doorways, highlighting the suffocating proximity and tension within the family. In interviews, Hogg speaks at length at her obsession with sound and in Archipelago, this becomes significantly more pronounced. There is a torturous quality at each family dinner, the silences exaggerated by the clank and scrape of silverware, the hum from the kitchen, the tension built on each breath and bite.

For fans of: Uncomfortable family vacations where you count down the hours until you can leave.

Where to stream Archipelago: KanopyAmazon Prime

Exhibition

(dir. Joanna Hogg, 2013)

Joanna Hogg has spoken a number of times about the inspiration that she takes from painting and other arts. Her 2013 film Exhibition might be the peak of these ideas as it is a work at once more abstracted than the films that preceded it, but also more striking and concentrated in its cinematic power.

In an interview with Jason Wood which was featured in his excellent book: Last Words, Hogg describes working on Exhibition as follows: “In the edit I challenged Helle and myself to make less sense and have the film work on a more unconscious level. So the connections would be more freely associated and less linear. I want to go further and further into dreams and the connections between different levels of reality, and by doing this make it possible for the audience to get inside the character’s head.”

This approach feels a perfect fit with the subject matter as well. Two married artists cohabitating within a house that more so resembles an art installation than a home. Hogg’s frequent themes of family and alienation are just as present, but now processed through the lens of a single relationship. The two artists, referred to as only H and D respectively, bristle against each other as their sense of self-reflection, sexuality, and fulfillment are perpetually at odds with the traditional dynamics of marriage. This incongruity is simultaneously mirrored in their interactions and relationship with society at large.

These ideas are best exemplified in a sequence where H, played marvelously by Viv Albertine of the iconic feminist post-punk band The Slits, hears an ambulance wailing outside. At first the interruption is perceived as belonging to the outside world, the standard blare of sirens, but as time passes and the sound grows in volume and proximity the possibility of her partner’s suicide looms. She runs out and watches an ambulance take away a woman on a stretcher, the fear subsides and the interruption is returned back to the real of the outside world.

These parallels between the two artists as well as the inner world of the house and the outer world of the city are often literally mirrored back and forth across the glare of the large looming windows. While sound and light are able to easily penetrate through the glass into the sanctum of the house, other barriers are constantly pronounced. D sleeps while H speaks her sexual desires into a tape recorder next to him, even within the confines of their shared bed, their worlds remain separated.

At one point the neighbors comment: “It’s not a family home, it’s an artist home.”, further underlining the same undercurrents, childlessness in its complex interplay of yearning and absence, that we originally saw in Unrelated. If anything, the films closing shot of the house from the outside  puts a fine point to it, leaving us as strangers looking outside in on a family at play.

This is the core of Joanna Hogg’s filmmaking, the underlying tensions that exist within an individual, the struggle to find one’s place even as we reach middle-age, and Exhibition is arguably the sharpest evocation of these themes. In the end, we are left yearning to cross through the glass threshold, to merge our inner and outer worlds, to exist in both spaces at once. 

For fans of: Waking up early on a  Saturday to work on your passion project only to spend most of the morning staring out the window.

Where to stream Exhibition: Amazon Prime

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