Locarno: Upstairs, Downstairs, and Brief Encounters On an Escalator

Posted by Michael Pattison on 8.27.2013


Claire Simon’s Gare du Nord.

Michael Pattison is a member of the second annual Locarno Critics Academy. In this article, he looks at how space affects the storytelling in Joanna Hogg's Exhibition and Claire Simon's Gare du Nord. You can follow him on Twitter at @m_pattison.

Two films that had world premieres at the recent Locarno Film Festival share common ground. Joanna Hogg’s Exhibition and Claire Simon’s Gare du Nord are both made by women, of course, but, in varying ways, they also revolve around one setting and deal with the tension between a private and a public space. In Exhibition, the decline of a marriage seems conditioned and expressed in some way by the home in which a couple live, while in Gare du Nord, a huge Paris train station is both a conduit and a roadblock to interaction.

Hogg’s film opens with a typically artful arrangement. Divided down its center, the composition juxtaposes a blank domestic space against a leafy exterior seen through a large window. Lying static on the inside sill is one of the film’s two protagonists, D., played by Viv Albertine. As if asleep, D. lies facing the outside world, though she remains as fixed as the camera itself. In a quiet and efficient way, the shot encapsulates the film’s overall themes of private space and public space and the interplay between them. The scene teases a dormant longing and prohibitive silence.

Hogg’s previous features, Unrelated (2007) and Archipelago (2010), both dealt with class tensions and the ripple effect of pain that emerges between unspoken anxieties in an otherwise routine familial setting. As the product of deliberate downscaling, Exhibition is a more appreciably intimate film, dealing as it does with one couple (Albertine and Liam Gillick) and the house they have lived in for 18 years. Whereas the earlier works depicted an accumulation of grievances, in Exhibition, tensions pervade the director’s latest film from the outset.

Hogg only gives hints of the home’s architecture. Like her narrative, the house is fragmented and its rooms are disparate, while husband and wife, both artists, communicate to one another by telephoning from their respective studies on different floors. Fixed-camera compositions emphasize both the emotional disconnect and the sense of claustrophobia of a marriage on the decline. Homebound by their careers, the couple are insulated from the outside world, exacerbating their frustration and jealousies.


Joanna Hogg’s Exhibition

New to Hogg’s visual vocabulary are those high- and low-angle shots, in which one character observes another. The framing appears like some violently declarative gesture, and emphasizes the unacknowledged hierarchy that defines how the couple relate to one another. Referred to simply as H., the man is assumed to be a more successful artist, and exudes a patronizing air of superiority. In the first scene in which they appear together, D. opts out of telling her husband about a project idea in order to avoid his dismissing it as stupid.

Much of Exhibition is set in the couple's West London home, which consequently limits the kind of social tensions so effectively conveyed in Hogg's previous films, Unrelated and especially Archipelago. But Exhibition adds something uniquely its own. It’s a careful examination of privacy as a means both of emotional retreat and of social power. At one point in the film, D. pleads frantically with H. in the hallway not to leave the house at night. In another scene, H. is enraged when someone parks his car in front of their garage. Both instances take place in or around the threshold of a domestic space, suggesting a sense that neither domestic security nor the comfort of routine is necessarily a good thing.

There are no such domestic spaces in Claire Simon’s Gare du Nord. Named after the Paris railway station where the film is entirely set, Simon’s film unfolds in stark contrast to Hogg’s. While Exhibition pivots around one marriage in a defined space, Gare du Nord takes place in an arena of fluidity. Sexuality, race, ethnicity and nationality are all in flux here. Nevertheless, as a film very much about private fears in public places, Gare du Nord has parallels with Exhibition. As it progressed, I was reminded of Resnais and, later, of Rivette, both in its repetition and in the casual way in which supernatural elements begin to creep into and inform its plot.

Played by the ever-distinctive Reda Kateb, Ismael spends his days working in the station's concourse conducting surveys in order to earn money for his PhD in sociology. Ascending an escalator, Ismael meets daily commuter Mathilde (Nicole Garcia). The two form an unlikely bond which eventually grows into a sexual attraction. The film introduces others like Ismael, whose academic qualifications have nevertheless resulted in little more than minimum-wage dead-end jobs such as candy vendors, washroom attendants, and so on. Asked by a customer whether he is Buddhist or Muslim, a Nepalese worker notes that he only believes "in work." Security officers and transport police, meanwhile, prowl with inherent distrust.

Someone remarks early on in Gare du Nord that the eponymous station is "a representation of the world," and, fittingly, Ismael’s PhD thesis has the working title of "Gare du Nord: A Global Village Square." It is at once prohibitive and facilitative, defined by cynical surveillance and inner insecurities, and a connective space both of exclusion and coexistence.

At two hours, Gare du Nord feels a tad unwieldy. Embracing slack structure and partial resolution, it has its merits as well as its limitations. It plays as a collection of moments rather than as a cohesive ensemble arc. A fictional counterpart to Simon’s own documentary Géographie humaine (2013), the film offers as its chief strength an intermittent ode to those irrational emotions one can feel while passing through a place as dauntingly public and ostensibly unnavigable as a train station. Alienation, romance, tolerance, and paranoia are all possible. As one character sums up it in the film: "What a mess."

It's also a line that could be uttered by either of the protagonists in Exhibition.

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