A wise though frequently cranky friend recently pointed out that when a lot of men say they love women, what they’re really saying is that they love women’s bodies. I had to think one that one awhile (granted, it may seem obvious to others), but such a notion does challenge us men who hope they love women, to distinguish the physical from the other, even if it’s better in practice not to completely separate out such concepts.
Joanna Hogg’s third movie Exhibition, playing through April 17th at the Northwest Film Forum, features a brave performance from musician Viv Albertine, late of the Slits. I call it brave with a certain air of frustration, because the bravery does showcase the physical, her body and the things she’s willing to do with it in front of a camera. In my idea of a better society, such bravery would not be necessary, because nudity and sexual frankness wouldn’t arouse ire or guilt. We live in such times, although admittedly such times seems better than earlier times.
But underneath the transgressions, Albertine’s character is trying to make art, out of life. And she makes the art out of life using her body. Because she is steadily losing her partner of twenty years or so, played by real-life conceptual artist Liam Gillick, her body exists in opposition to his in many scenes. Their often-frustrated and never-completely-satisfying lovemaking forces the point of their inner distance.
Gillick tells Albertine, after one such frustration, that he can’t live with “just a, a body…” One of the weaknesses of the film is that we don’t see as much body frankness from Gillick as from Albertine, and this, along with Hogg’s decision that Gillick should be the remote one in the relationship, tends to tip the emotional landscape lopsiding in favor of Albertine. On the other hand, one of the several ways we see the couple uncoupling is their use of an intercom in their fancy house. They’re always sending invitations to each other and never accepting them. They pass messages through the electronics, but neither will take the initiative to come up, or down. It’s hard to say who starting withdrawing first.
It’s also hard to say how Albertine’s art was different before the current situation. Clues are few. In one lengthy and brave scene, she checks to see that Gillick’s asleep beside her, strips next to him, lies down in bed, and makes a show of and for herself using high heels and lube. It’s striking, erotic, and lonely. It exists on a continuum, because as successive scenes make clear, she’s channeling her erotic into her work. She’s frequently alone, literally and emotionally, with the house, so she turns the house into a partner, or at least a sounding board.
The publicity for Exhibition makes much of the house, which looks agreeably like a space ship from a ’60s science fiction film, but I never got much positivity from it. It divides the couple, almost as if it deliberately wants Albertine to itself. The two human beings inside seem subservient to its quiet and steady will. And that’s a shame, because I felt something close enough to love for Albertine’s character, that I wanted her to be happy. This architecture won’t sustain that morality.