The Art of Losing: Joanna Hogg's Haunted Houses

Image for this story

The muted chills of The Eternal Daughter suggest that Hogg's characters are not blind to what lies outside their moneyed interiors.

By Laura Staab

On a pleasant afternoon in the Isles of Scilly, a family stand to have a photograph taken. Of the two grown-up children, their mother, and her friend, only the blond, curly-haired son has his face fully in the sunshine; he squints in the light. Edward, one of the central characters in Joanna Hogg’s second feature Archipelago (2010), is different from his mother Patricia and her sister Cynthia. He has “too much empathy,” according to his mother, and “always in an accusatory way,” his sister adds with a sneer. Virtuous Edward is about to go on a gap year to Africa, in that vague way that a gap year so often seems to be blithely to the continent rather than a particular place within it. Until then, he is spending some time with his family in an agreeably beige and blue country retreat, which is complete with a professional cook, Rose, who boils fresh lobsters and plucks fresh game for them. Cynthia supposes it is “quite a nice job actually,” shrugging as she has another sip of red wine. Edward on the other hand is aghast at the suggestion, and throughout the film makes a display of extreme discomfort at the fact of belonging to such a wealthy family, one able to afford serviced private accommodation for a few weeks a year. Why shouldn’t he be happy with a bowl of cereal for breakfast, and pour the milk himself? Why shouldn’t he help Rose after dinner—pull on a pair of rubber gloves and give her hand with the washing-up? 

Such class tensions often wrinkle the expensive fabric of Hogg’s films, which have tended to be received, and sometimes dismissed, as stories simply about the rich. In Artforum, Amy Taubin writes that these films are “blind, willfully or naively, to everything outside the English upper-middle class.” This is a cinema of old money, with characters who holiday in Tuscany, live in affluent Knightsbridge, and speak with begrudging affection about fathers who shoot pheasant for sport. Hogg herself is also not like most of us. Descended from statesmen, her honorable late mother had a peerage and gave her the painfully posh middle name Wynfreda (which is the “W” in JWH Films, Hogg’s production house). Given the current miserable economic climate, as well as the extent to which spectators are now marketed content on some dubious basis of it skewering the rich, it is hard to be surprised when I hear friends say that they don’t like Hogg’s films. As much as I sympathize with an allergy to the rich, however, an attendant aversion to Hogg’s films doesn’t amount to class critique or solidarity with the struggling classes—mentioned in passing, it is as ineffective as a bit of performative washing-up. By the same token, watching and appreciating these films is hardly a case of class treachery, a crossing of enemy lines. In Archipelago, a detached mode of filmmaking allows us to observe from a distance, but in detail, the blindness on which Taubin hits: one form of it, willful, and the other, naïve.

There are certainly characters in Hogg’s films who willfully blind themselves to anything beyond the English upper-middle class: Cynthia, for instance, who would prefer not to talk to the help unless absolutely necessary. To her cynical mind, Edward’s noble fussing is very embarrassing; she stifles a laugh as Rose is made ever more redundant. There are then other characters who are naively blind. In an amorphous, misguided manner, they are concerned about cultivating an awareness of the wider world—everything outside, from the cook in the kitchen to all of Africa. Edward is one such oblivious character, and young Julie in The Souvenir (2019) and The Souvenir Part II (2021) is another. At the beginning of the first film, Julie has an ill-conceived idea about making a feature film of adversity faced in a Sunderland shipyard. Both socially and geographically, it is a situation many miles away from her own (as a student, she cooks fillet steak purchased from the deluxe food halls of Harrods for dinner). In one scene, Anthony, her mysterious, raffish romantic interest, turns to her with exasperation, urging her not to be so anxiously “worthy” in her art but instead to be “arrogant—much more sexy.” And it’s a good word, this “arrogant.” Sharing a root with the verb “arrogate” in the Latin arrogare, “to claim for oneself,” it’s an apt adjective for the upper-middle class characters of Hogg’s films. In more or less feeble efforts to counteract financial worth with moral worth, Edward and Julie try to replace arrogance—that is, willful blindness—with some sort of apology: a little, individual apology that no one asked them for. 

However blind Cynthia, Edward, and young Julie may be to the rest of the world, and in whichever way, Hogg’s films themselves are not deaf to what lies outside their moneyed interiors. On more than one occasion, the uninvited underclasses edge into the frame, knock at the door, threaten to let themselves in. All of this trespassing and arriving unannounced is accompanied by what sound scholar Hannah Paveck calls “ambient intrusions” in an essay on Hogg’s Exhibition (2013). She notes “abrupt shifts between noise and quietude” as the “hum of traffic and the drill of construction” seep through the walls of the modernist house at the center of that film, unsettling the still focus of the reclusive artist within. Hogg goes on to craft a muted horror of such ambient intrusions in The Eternal Daughter (2022). In a symphony of haunting, floorboards creak, aging bulbs buzz, and a window bangs in the wind. What could be disturbing Hogg’s characters now?

Continue reading here.