In all of her films, Joanna Hogg uses spaces to structure her characters’ relationships, often finding them trapped by their own privilege and complacency in safe spaces; the characters need to step outside their comfort spaces to grow and develop. This essay appears in the new Seventh Row ebook Tour of Memories: The Creative Process Behind Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir, and is available here as a free preview for 2 weeks only. Get your copy of the book here.
“We’re going to cut the house,” H (Liam Gillick) announces near the end of Exhibition. He is referring to a cake designed like an architectural model of the house where he and his wife, D (Viv Albertine), have lived for two decades — a house that has structured and divided their relationship throughout the film. Fittingly, Hogg positions D and H on opposite sides of the cake as they cut in and destroy the structure that was getting in the way of their relationship. As they break it into pieces, they laugh and joke, becoming a calmer, happier version of themselves, now that they have decided to sell their former home.
In all of Joanna Hogg’s films, characters’ relationships are linked to and organized by the spaces they inhabit. These spaces often stagnate and stifle characters’ personal development. It is only by leaving those “safe” spaces, and thus the comfort of self-destructive, ingrained, or passive behaviours, that Hogg’s characters learn and grow. The changes characters undergo are often shaped by how they relate to their spaces. Hogg’s approach to how spaces influence relationships has evolved greatly from Unrelated to The Souvenir, becoming increasingly sophisticated with each film, each building on ideas first explored in earlier films.
Hogg’s first two films, Unrelated and Archipelago, are both set in vacation homes, which spur temporary behavioural changes in the films’ characters. In Unrelated, the protagonist, Anna, manages to mature, whereas in Archipelago, the characters end up doomed to repeat bad patterns. In both films, the way Hogg positions the characters in the frame and in relationship to one another speaks volumes about how their relationships function. In Archipelago, Hogg experiments with ideas she explores further in her later films: here, the house shapes patterns of often-toxic behaviour. At the same time, the structure of the house reflects the relationships between Edward (Tom Hiddleston), his sister, Cynthia (Lydia Leonard), and his mother, Patricia (Kate Fahy).
By contrast, Hogg’s two most recent films examine how the comforting domestic spaces characters inhabit also stifle them. In Exhibition, Hogg takes her interest in the geography of characters’ domains to the extreme: set in the house where the central couple lives, the house itself both structures and reflects their relationship, preventing the relationship from changing when it needs to. In The Souvenir, Julie’s apartment is what facilitates her toxic relationship with Anthony and protects her from its fallout — but it is only when she leaves the comfort of this home that is she able to develop as an artist and individual.
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The vacation home and spaces to escape to in Joanna Hogg’s Unrelated
In Unrelated, Hogg’s mise en scene creates tacit boundaries between the characters, and makes visible Anna’s (Kathryn Worth) desire to recapture her youth and reject her menopause by surrounding herself with teenagers. Anna’s trip to Italy was meant to be a getaway for Anna and her husband to visit her childhood friend, Verena (Mary Roscoe). Instead, Anna leaves her husband behind in England, and rather than catching up with Verena, she tries to take a voyage back in time to her youth, hanging out with Verena’s children and flirting with the eldest teenage guest, Oakley (Tom Hiddleston).
The adults and the teens huddle in separate clusters (“the old” and “the young”) and rarely mingle — except for Anna, who transgresses unspoken boundaries by moving from one group to the other. The key moments when Anna crosses these boundaries occur in the liminal spaces of the pool or lake — spaces where rules are loosened and ignored, where wearing very little is commonplace. Anna’s initial transgression is relatively innocent: while sunning at the lake with the “olds,” Anna jumps into the water, and the camera follows her through no man’s land as she swims toward and crosses over into the space of the young. When the old and young join forces for evening skinny dipping, Anna is the only adult to go completely nude, and stays in too long when it is only her and the teenage boys remaining. When Anna is finally exiled from both groups, all seated by the pool as they overhear a fight between Oakley and his father, she is physically removed from both the young and the old.
The flirtation between Anna and Oakley always occurs in public or semi-public spaces — at the communal breakfast table, in the pool with others, or in town amongst the young and the old. Hogg shoots the pair in a way that emphasizes how they carve out a private sphere for flirtation within the group, using the group as a cover of plausible deniability. Their interactions are both inappropriately intimate — holding hands and touching casually — and publicly unobjectionable, at least on the surface. Hogg makes us feel the intimacy of the pair’s interactions by allowing them to share a frame in two-shot, while the group can be heard or seen in the background.
Because Anna and Oakley always occupy public spaces, they are prevented from taking things too far romantically, giving both themselves and the people around them plausible deniability. In town one afternoon, they discuss Anna’s sex life. Anna and Oakley occupy the frame in medium-shot, but at the edge of the frame, Oakley’s friend’s shoulder is visible, meaning he is within earshot of this incredibly private conversation. Hogg cuts to Verena looking disapproving but doing nothing, and her husband, literally looking the other way.
Throughout the film, Verena actively judges Anna’s behaviour while her husband ignores it, but neither actually explicitly confront Anna. To do so would be to breach propriety, and as long as Anna is not explicitly engaging sexually with Oakley, she is free to make a spectacle of herself. In private, Verena expresses some frustration that Anna seems less interested in spending time with her than with the children, but does not explain how this looks nor push Anna to explain herself. Their tacit agreement to allow Anna to act out breaks down when Anna’s behaviour actually puts the children in danger: they get into a car accident, and for some time, Anna chooses to conceal the information from the adults to stay in allegiance with the children. Before, her behaviour was unsavory but not entirely objectionable. Once she lies to Verena, and then self-corrects, in what the teenagers see as a betrayal, she becomes exiled from both groups.
Anna has to remove herself from spaces where she has experienced problems — her home with her husband, the vacation home with Oakley — to get the distance she needs to grow and change. When Anna finds herself exiled by both the old and the young after divulging a secret she should never have agreed to keep, she finally removes herself from the vacation home. Once installed in a local hotel, without others around her, she is able to face her own behaviour. When Verena meets her there, it is neutral ground. It is also the first time Anna reveals her inner turmoil about approaching menopause, a fact she had been running away from by running toward Oakley. When Anna eventually returns to the vacation home with Verena, she takes her rightful place as Verena’s friend, sharing inside jokes and physically distancing herself from the children. At the start of the film Oakley flirtatiously invaded Anna’s space over breakfast; by the end of the trip, they are eating on opposite sides of the table.
The contrast between how Hogg opens the film and closes the film is stark and mirrors Anna’s character development. The film opens at night, with Anna (Kathryn Worth) dragging her suitcase along the road as she arrives at her friend’s vacation home in Italy; her arrival feels surreptitious, like she is a woman on the run — away from her husband — and she knows what she is doing is somehow wrong. The film ends during the day with Anna heading to the airport by car, like a grown woman with nothing to hide. This time, she is chatting happily to her husband in close up, the first conflict-free phone call they have had in the film. It is also the only time Hogg shoots Anna on the phone so close up; usually, Anna’s phone calls are in wide shot, keeping us, like Anna, at a distance from the man on the other end of the line. Having faced her problems, Anna comes into focus in her own life, and returns home changed.
The vacation home structures relationships in Joanna Hogg’s Archipelago, keeping the characters in separate spaces
Archipelago expands on the vacation theme of Unrelated, but with characters who are a lot less willing or able to change. Twentysomething Edward is the perspective character in the film, and, like Anna, he hopes to leave his former life to escape what he does not like about himself. The film charts a family vacation in the Scilly Isles that is ostensibly Edward’s send-off for his impending year-long escape. He is no longer in his old life — a high-powered financial job in the city that he hates — nor beginning his new life as a volunteer sexual health educator in Africa. Edward’s time in the Scilly Isles, which pushes him into old toxic habits by sharing space with his family, only cements his listlessness, his uncertainty, and the misguided rashness of this choice that he hopes will be a panacea for both his upper class guilt and his passivity.
The design of the Scilly vacation home, in tandem with Oakley’s mother and sister choices, conspire to push Edward into behaviours of his younger, boyish self. Edward arrives on the island after his mother, Patricia, and sister, Cynthia, have already comfortably installed themselves there. They have thoughtfully left him only one available room: in the attic, on a single bed, in a room where he has to crouch lest he bang his head. The family used to visit this house when Cynthia and Edward were children; installing Edward in what likely would have been one of the children’s rooms allows Patricia and Cynthia to enforce their superior place in the family, pushing Edward back into an almost teenage role. The women choose the vacation itinerary and activities, even though it is supposed to be, as his mother states, “Edward’s trip.” Cynthia does not take Edward’s choice to volunteer in Africa seriously and patronizes him; Patricia, nearly indifferent, condescends to him.
Edward’s upstairs quarters physically divide him from his family, who sleep a floor below him, while placing him next door to the only hired help among the family unit — the cook, Rose (Amy Lloyd). During the day, Patricia and Cynthia take painting lessons from Christopher (Christopher Baker), their local painting tutor; Edward never takes part in these lessons. Instead, Edward aligns himself with Rose, with whom he’s thrown together by the location of their rooms. They first meet in a wide shot of the living room, Edward seated at one end of the room and Rose standing at the other end of the room: a gulf separates them in the frame, signalling the appropriate distance they should keep.
By the next day, Edward is sneaking into Rose’s bedroom next door to his, poking around in her personal belongings, before repeatedly inviting himself into her workspace, the kitchen, and lingering — when she boils the lobsters, when he eats his breakfast, and when she repeatedly asks him to fetch his family. Edward’s insistence on spending time with Rose is itself an avoidance tactic, an excuse to stay away from his family physically. Of course, he lacks the self-awareness that he is making Rose uncomfortable, even when his family and Rose tell him so: Rose politely tells him that it is actually her job to make him breakfast, even as he insists he has two functioning hands.
Edward is incapable of respecting Rose’s boundaries, feeling entitled to her on a personal level without respecting her employment relationship. He does not understand that by standing in her work space and insistently talking to her, he’s preventing her from doing her job and demanding that she entertain him. It’s entitled and invasive — and ironic, given his purpose in talking to her is to prove to his family that he does not share their entitlement. .
In Archipelago, the family never really change because they will not or cannot get away from each other. Although Edward takes short, daily bike rides to get away from his family, the furthest anyone travels on this tiny island is to a restaurant for a disastrous dinner out — a dinner which includes the family, Rose, and Christopher, ratcheting up the tension between them rather than offering a reprieve. Consequently, very little changes between Edward, Cynthia, and Patricia. When Edward finally lets out his frustration, he does so passive aggressively and without taking responsibility for agreeing to Cynthia’s demands: “I don’t understand why she [my girlfriend] couldn’t come,” on the trip. But this outburst is not constructive or cathartic: he neither explains why this was hurtful nor how he wants things to change. His outburst provokes his sister to throw a fit over her meal, leave the table abruptly, and then scream inaudible complaints offscreen from her bedroom. His mother’s moment of catharsis comes the next day when she chews out her husband for not joining them there on the vacation, but it’s as bootless as Edward’s complaint: she makes no demands, only huffs.
In short, none of these moments of catharsis are likely to cause any lasting change. The family go on vacation, but their vacation home is a second home — they have been there many times before, and so they fall into old patterns the instant they step inside. Hogg reinforces this stasis by shooting the family in the exact same way before the outbursts as after. Whenever the three of them are in frame together, Hogg divides the frame into three equal sections, placing each character as far apart from one another as possible. When a scene involves characters moving, the camera stays in place while the characters flit in and out independently, as if in their own worlds. It is here that the film’s title, Archipelago, gains metaphorical significance, rather than just describing the geographical nature of Scilly: the members of this family are indeed a group of islands.
Archipelago ends in much the same way as it begins: with us, the audience, placed on the island, while the family come and go. The film opens on Scilly with Christopher painting the landscape, aligning the audience with his outsider perspective as he observes the family from a distance. The final shot of the film is a still, wide shot, from far away at ground level: this time, the helicopter carries the entire family, lifting off from the ground and finally, out of the frame. Hogg leaves us on the island as the family leaves, making us feel like any change that happened in Scilly will stay in Scilly.
Domestic spaces in Joanna Hogg’s Exhibition
In Exhibition, D and H live in a modernist house that both reflects their personalities and structures their 19-year marriage. The central conflict in their marriage is both artistic and personal: H is frustrated that D does not share her visual and performance art with him, while D finds H, an architect, emotionally withholding. At the same time, H wants to sell the house, while D cannot imagine leaving.
Both D and H work at home, and the location and design of their spaces reflect their conflict. H is based on the top floor of the house, as far away from D as possible. Here, his office windows start at about shoulder-height when he is seated at his desk, obscuring him from the outside world. His office is clean and spare, with black furnishings, and we only see him in his workspace from behind, the way D would. By contrast, D’s main floor studio is warm red, and packed full of belongings, keepsakes, and fodder for her art. Her space feels truly lived in. It can also be easily transformed from an office with a desk to a studio space for a photo shoot, moulding to her needs. She keeps the door to her office closed, separating herself from H, while her floor-length windows put her and her works-in-progress on display for the neighbourhood. Repeatedly, H goes out onto the street to look up at D in her private space so that he can see what she shows to everyone but him.
Inside the house, the pair are connected by a tall, winding, silver staircase, from the first floor to the top floor. They meet in the middle in the bedroom, a room with wooden walls and enough hidden storage space to make the bed the centre of attention. Since the pair spend the film being out of sync with each other sexually — they are never moved with desire at the same time — the room feels like a reminder of what should be connecting them but is not. They also share meals in the dining room, but more often than not, we watch D cleaning up after a meal in the kitchen rather than watching the pair share that meal; given Hogg’s repeated use of meal scenes in her other films as a crucible for mounting tensions, their absence here is noteworthy. We do not even see D and H connecting at the one time when most families are forced to do so. The house is big enough and difficult enough to move through that D and H communicate with each other by phone; their distorted voices further distance them as they make plans for the evening or tell each other they love them.
For D, the house is safe, comfortable hideaway from the outside world; for H, who is always climbing the walls, the house is a place to escape from. From early in the film, H is keen to sell the house. In his view, they do not need the space and do not have children so they should sell and profit from the house they have nurtured, allowing them to begin the next stage of their lives. H’s restlessness within the house suggests that he may sense that the building is getting in the way of his happiness and his relationship with D. From within D’s office, H’s footsteps can be heard padding up and down the stairs at all hours. He takes nightly walks around the block, which distresses D; there is a mention of something scary that happened to H, which D worries will happen again. For D, the house is a safe space from the outside world that will protect both of them, the place she longs to return to the one night they go to dinner with friends — and escape early when D fakes fainting. The one night D is alone in the house while H leaves on a trip, we watch her lock multiple locks on the door. D sees this house as a cocoon, but it is also preventing her from seeing clearly how it is separating her from her husband, and making him miserable.
It is not until D leaves the house that she is able to see her marriage differently. In a surreal sequence, D is interviewed on stage by her husband while she watches herself from the audience — perhaps seeing herself from the outside for the first time. On her way to the on-stage interview, D appears happier and more carefree than she has throughout the film, shaking off her jeans-and-a-t-shirt uniform for a glamourous, golden dress, while a jaunty tune plays. In the on-stage interview, they both name their problems for the first time, and actually listen to each other. Afterward, they sneak backstage and finally connect physically and sexually, playfully undressing each other and touching each other with joy for the first time in the film. The abrupt cut back to D in her office at the end of this sequence — among other indicators — suggest that this trip out of the house was only in her head. But it seems that merely imagining inhabiting a space other than her house is enough to allow D to see why she needs to move on.
After this dream sequence, D and H begin to find physical intimacy in a way they were unable to before. They take an afternoon bath together, joking and laughing, when previously in the film, H had only ever bathed alone, even locking D out of the room once. That night, they hold a party to celebrate selling their house, and their house has more people in it than ever before. Now that they are letting go of the house, they can let the outside world in. Cutting the cake in the shape of their house sets them free to laugh and, in a private moment at the party, find casual intimacy in a kiss.
The final scene of the film finds the couple packing up their belongings together with the most casual warmth we’ve seen between them in the film. For the first time, D tells H about her work, and H offers support and reinforcement without offering an opinion, ceding to D’s wishes even though he is clearly struggling to do so. They are smiling, and D is dressed in a bright turquoise blouse, setting her apart from the reds, blues, and blacks of the house; she is radiant. H sits in a black shirt, his body language open, in no hurry to leave, unlike earlier in the film when he was constantly leaving the house, donning his coat and scarf, closing himself off.
Exhibition begins and ends with the house, but its inhabitants, and their relationship to it, shift. The film opens with a long, uninterrupted take:, D is lying against a window, moulding her body to the house’s architecture, as if in need.. The last time we see D in the house is in three brief shots where she, for the last time, moulds her body to the zigs and zags of the house, and finally, sits peacefully beneath the table covered in plastic, ready to be moved. She still feels linked to the house, but she no longer feels dependent on it. The final image of the film finds us looking into the house from the outside as a new family moves in. When the closing credits repeat the jaunty tune that played in D’s dream sequence when things started to get better, Hogg ends the film on an optimistic note: leaving the house is not easy for D, but better things await beyond its doors.
Flat L in The Souvenir and the open spaces of the outside world
In The Souvenir, Julie’s (Honor Swinton-Byrne) Knightsbridge apartment, Flat L, is a manifestation of her privilege: a gilded cage that protects her from economic hardship and the dangers of dating a heroin addict, but keeps her separated from the world outside its doors and the opportunities it offers. Nobody lives in Knightsbridge; the only way an unemployed twentysomething could live in a two-storey apartment there is if it were a gift from her parents, signifying the wealth Julie comes from. Living in Flat L allows people to come to Julie preventing her from ever having to venture outdoors. She hosts parties; her mother and friend drop by to visit. Leaving her apartment is tantamount to leaving her world. When her roommate moves out, we never see him again; when Julie discovers that her lover, Anthony (Tom Burke), is dead, it is because he never comes home.
The first time Julie leaves her apartment, it is at Anthony’s behest, for tea at the Grand Hotel. Anthony brings Julie out of her shell and out of her apartment, an important catalyst for her personal development and her ability to move beyond her privileged bubble. Notably, the invitation for tea, and the trip to the gallery that follows, both come in the form of a letter slipped under the door to Flat L — what beckons from the outside world, still does so at her doorstep. The spaces Anthony takes Julie — the Grand Hotel and then the Wallace Collection, where Julie first sees the painting “The Souvenir” — are large and airy with high ceilings: a stark contrast to the white and mirrored walls of Flat L, which emphasize the always-visible borders of the space.
As Anthony introduces Julie to a world of culture and ideas, he also introduces her to wide open spaces. Early in the film, these spaces feel foreign and sometimes scary. The echoes in the Grand Hotel mean Julie and Anthony must speak at a whisper; the Wallace Collection is foreign territory; and the film school is a tall space that makes Julie feel small. At her interview for film school, Julie finds herself seated in front of an intimidating panel of judges, almost exclusively older white men, who address her condescendingly and disdainfully. Inhabiting this space is necessary for Julie to learn to be the filmmaker she desires to be, but it begins as an uninviting space.
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Julie’s apartment facilitates her relationship with Anthony: he needs a place to live; she has a spacious apartment and no need to collect rent. With Anthony there, Julie’s apartment becomes more her own space rather than merely a gift from her parents, albeit shared with and often dominated by Anthony; his opera music is always playing. Before he moves in, Julie is often on the outside looking in at a party she is hosting, or helping her roommate move out. Once Anthony is there, the place becomes more homey: he has dinner cooking in the kitchen and provides company at breakfast where he listens to her ideas. They buy furniture together, replacing Julie’s old bed with a golden antique. It is easy to see why she might prefer to stay in this comfortable cocoon than venture out to film school to be judged and sidelined.
Still, Julie is only ever able to grow and change by leaving her apartment. Each stage of her relationship with Anthony is marked by tea at the Grand Hotel, where they tacitly negotiate the new rules of engagement: on their first date, he starts to open her eyes to culture and pays; the second visit for tea finds Anthony making a last ditch effort to save their relationship by inviting her to Venice on a romantic vacation before casually handing her the bill; the third time they meet on even footing, evenly spaced in the frame. Julie has just decided to take him back after kicking him out, but this time, their relationship is on her terms.
All outward journeys are inward journeys, and the couple’s brief trip to Venice sparks a sea change in Julie’s fight for her own agency. Venice was intended as a romantic getaway, but instead, it involved Julie crying in her large, high-ceilinged hotel room, following behind Anthony rather than beside him en route to the opera, and then having rather dehumanizing sex with him. The trip fell so short of expectations that it forced Julie to seriously reconsider her relationship with Anthony. Ultimately, traveling to Venice means disrupting the couple’s domestic patterns, which allows Julie to gain perspective. This is why Hogg dedicates most of the Venice screen time to Julie traveling on the train to Venice and then walking around at night in Venice. The journey itself matters most. Before, Venice, Julie had never confronted Anthony about his secretive drug addiction, even when he stole her belongings. After Venice, she finally has the perspective and confidence to confront Anthony about his theft and share her hurt feelings.
Still, this trip is what allows Julie and Anthony to find the intimacy that was always missing in their relationship: with his addiction on the table, she goes with him to buy drugs, visits support groups to find a way to help him, and on one Christmas night, shares a casual, romantic dance. Suddenly, their relationship at home becomes what they had hoped it would be in Venice, but with a major caveat: taking care of Anthony takes Julie away from film school. The man who helped pull her out of Flat L is the one keeping her there, now that he cohabitates there.
In the film’s final act, more scenes are set outside of Flat L than inside it, with Julie now making her film at film school. Earlier in the film, Julie had taken time out from school to call Anthony and discuss Venice. In act two, she calls him from school to check on him, her concern for his well-being interfering with her ability to work. In the third act, when she calls home to Anthony, it is merely to tell him that her project is going well. This time, when she hangs up the phone, Hogg shoots her walking away from the phone at the front of the frame — and thus us, and Anthony — and into the film studio to shoot her film. The door to the sound stage shuts, clearly dividing Julie’s work life from her home life: her work life finally takes precedence.
While the action in The Souvenir begins with a party in Flat L and a frame in which Julie was not even present, the film ends at the film school’s sound stage with Julie. Not only has Julie left Flat L behind to pursue her dreams, but when, in the final shot of the film, she opens the giant door of the sound stage to reveal the outside world, she also frees herself from the cocoon of the set where she played out the story of her life in fictional form.
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