22 June 2011

Joanna Hogg’s Archipelago (2010)

Unrelated (2007),  Joanna Hogg's first feature film, brought her considerable acclaim within the arthouse movie world. Archipelago is very much in the same vein, and this too centers on a holiday from hell, with the familiar long shots taken from a distance, the extreme shortage of close-ups, the 'realistic' dialog with hesitations, pauses, etc. Again, we think of Ozu, or Bresson. And Rohmer's natural light. Even the DVD cover is similar in its difference: instead of the characters walking away, here they are walking toward us.

Hogg names the Danish artist Vilhelm Hammershøi as one of her influences, with his paintings of the backs of people, enigmatic, dark interiors, and speaks of the shadowy, door-framed scene of the mother Patricia Leighton (Kate Fahy) listening and responding to her husband's phone call (to say that he won't be coming to join the family group) as an example of this influence.

Hogg shoots in story order, but does a great deal of editing, and the story may change as she goes along, occasionally being changed by improvisations of the cast itself.

She likes to meld the real and the imaginary, to incorporate documentary elements into her movies. Christopher – played by the non-actor and real-life artist Christopher Baker, who is also Hogg's painting teacher – has been hired in the movie to teach Patricia how to paint.

Hogg used to spend many childhood vacations on the Isles of Scilly, and is very familiar with the terrain there, where Patricia comes for two weeks with her daughter Cynthia (Lydia Leonard) to welcome her son Edward (Tom Hiddleston) off to Africa, where he's going to spend eleven months on an educational project designed to prevent the spread of AIDS. Also present is the cook Rose (Amy Lloyd), also a non-actor who is really a cook.

She says that the movie is not autobiographical, although some characters reflect a part of her personality, such as Edward's OCD, and Patricia and Cynthia's anxiety. Each movie is as if Hogg is trying to solve something about herself.

So we meet just five main characters, and as the movie progresses we move with them into a kind of hell in which absence is another character: if Anna's husband Alex is a vocal absence in Unrelated, the absence of Will, the husband and father in Archipelago, is much louder.

Meals are particular occasions of torture in which differences are brought to the fore, such as when Cynthia rejects her meal in a restaurant, causing horror and disbelief in the others, to such an extent that the non-complainer Edward has to leave; or such as when Cynthia later has to leave the table at the house, to return some time after to a blazing row with her mother which - a little like the blazing row between George and his son Oakley in Unrelated - is only heard but not seen.

Much remains unsaid, enigmatic, essentially suggested. Edward hangs around Rose, doesn't like her obligation to wait on him, seeks refuge in her from the madness of his family, sees a kind of mother figure in this young woman no older than him, and there's an unanswered question of sex, like the quietly smouldering time he pins the fallen remembrance poppy back onto Rose's shirt. But he's far too repressed to make a move: he can't even make up his mind what he really wants to do with his future.

And what of Cynthia? She seems the perfect bitch, laying into Edward for wanting to take a belated 'gap year' in Africa, or shouting him down when he says his girlfriend Chloé should have joined them: no, she's not family. But why does she cry herself to sleep so pitifully, and why exactly is she so bitter? Hogg chooses to keep the viewer guessing, and the movie gives no clues, but although Cynthia is obviously very attached to her father and deeply feels his absence, Hogg has edited out the fact that she is finishing with her boyfriend, and of course this is the reason why she's antagonistic toward Edward's girlfriend: jealousy.

At the beginning of the film we learn that a picture has been removed from a sitting room, which the family put back shortly before moving out. It was too disturbing for the family to leave up, being a photo entitled 'Storm off Cape Horn'. This photo was originally found by a member of the film crew on the wall of the island's only pub, the New Inn, and was taken in about 1912 by Gwen Dorrien-Smith, a very important name in the history of the Scilly Isles.

The movie is austere, and Hogg uses no background music, only the songs of birds. As the credits roll, an a cappella song is played, the music by former Slits performer Viv Albertine, the words by Hogg. But it is sung by Lydia Leonard, or Cynthia, who speaks of her 'heart hidden away', and her 'many things to say' to her departing brother.

Much of the above information comes from Hogg's detailed comments throughout the movie, which are included on the DVD, which are fascinating, and in which she informs us that she is working on a third feature that will perhaps be set in London.

I very much look forward to watching it: Joanna Hogg is one of the most interesting - and, yes - exciting talents the film industry has produced in many years.

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