On the living room wall of the holiday house on Tresco there is a square of paint that is a lighter shade, where a picture once hung. The Leighton family, who are staying for the first time in years, took the painting down because none of them could stand to look at it. At the end of Archipelago (2010) it is replaced. A neatly framed mass of a water building to a wave. It is like the film in miniature; it mimics the way in which director Joanna Hogg carefully assigns the camera its place, and lets the emotions swell between the characters within the frame; the way in which the quiet, polite Leightons each try to maintain composure despite their growing upset. But the noise will not be contained. The winds whipping around the small island are heard offscreen, and arguments suddenly break out.
At the beginning of the film, Edward arrives to join his mother Patricia and sister Cynthia, who have planned a send-off for him. Edward is leaving a job in the City to spend time in Africa raising awareness about the risks of AIDS. Their father, neither seen nor heard in the film, calls each day making excuses for his delay, to the increasing distress of Patricia. Meanwhile, the rest of the family spend their days picnicking and painting, riding and conversing. They are joined by Rose, who has been hired as a cook, and Christopher, who is teaching Patricia about painting. During their brief time on the island, Edward is increasingly drawn to Rose, wishing to include her in more of the family’s activities, while his mother and sister are worried that he will embarrass her, and leave her without much of the work that she is being paid to do. Besides, Edward already has a girlfriend, Chloe, who will not be able to join him in Africa and whom, to his disappointment, his family declined to invite on the holiday.
Archipelago is a film about a group of people unable to get on the same wavelength. Cynthia cannot understand why Edward is giving up his secure job to go to Africa, dismissing it as a “gap year”. She is also incredulous about Edward’s anxieties around Rose. Patricia places her faith in her husband appearing and cannot understand what the hold-up is. She is also reluctant to raise a complaint about the guinea fowl served in a restaurant that Cynthia is adamant is “dangerous”. Edward has doubts about his trip and spends more and more time in the kitchen with Rose, who seems unsure how best to handle his interest and concern for her, but appears to enjoy his company and their conversation. (There is a moment, both sweet and awkward, when Edward assists Rose in pinning her Remembrance poppy to her clothing and one senses that he might attempt a kiss, but doesn’t.) And Christopher attempts to give Edward a pep talk, but can only manage masculine cliché, which he later explains was a needless parroting of advice he was given and could not use as a young man.
There are tensions beneath the calm surface, of fine dining, relaxing rides through the landscape and patient art instruction. Between the uncomfortable discussions are documentary like scenes; first of a local fisherman explaining to Rose the difference between male and female lobsters, and a hunter who details the method of skinning and preparing a pheasant for dinner.
Cynthia’s judgmental attitude towards her brother and Patricia’s rising impatience on the phone to her husband soon dissolve the etiquette. The restaurant scene is a masterpiece of middle-class horror, of fraught cuisine. Appearances are of no concern, since there are no other diners, but Cynthia’s dissatisfaction with the food and her interactions with the staff show up her isolation among those she supposes to be closest to her – the family to which she compares Edward’s relationship with Chloe unfavourably. Edward, fed up of his sister’s treatment of others, storms out of the restaurant.
The tentative peace is finally shattered not with a gunshot, but when Cynthia bites down on a piece of shot that has not been removed from the pheasant cooked by Rose. Disappearing for hours, she returns after dark to a waiting Edward and Patricia and heads straight to her room. The camera stays on Edward, who sits quietly in the growing darkness, while offscreen, on the floor above, Cynthia unleashes her rage at her mother. It is an extraordinary directorial choice, to allow the distress to flood onto the soundtrack, while keeping the viewer’s eyes out of the room, on a clearly upset Edward. Without the dramatic use of facial and other bodily gestures so commonly associated with flare-ups on film, Hogg is confident in the effects of sound alone – of the psychological power of the argument heard through walls, more typical of the type of family incapable of expressing such raw emotion openly, or so long intent above all to keep up appearances of the contented family – even within the privacy of their own home. It also allows the argument to be seen (and heard) to register on all members of the household – there is a cut to Rose, made uncomfortable by being present in the house during the row – rather than simply those engaging in the argument directly.
The waves subside and Edward makes a touching, apologetic gesture using a sock puppet around the edge of Cynthia’s bedroom door. But another crash comes when Patricia realises that her husband will not make it to the house before Edward has to leave to spend his last night with Chloe.
The metaphor of the archipelago is obvious; that of each person as an island, even the members of a seemingly perfect, well-to-do family. But they are not so far apart, they are dear to one another, only unsure of how to connect. Each has their own ideas about how to conduct oneself, of obligations to family and others, but struggle to maintain expectations in the face of the decisions of the others. They take in the same view, but paint their own pictures of it, in different colours and tones.
The scenes of relaxed eating in the outdoors, of shooting and cycling the countryside might remind us of Renoir’s countryside stories and the still frames of Ozu, or the domestic scenes of Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975). But there is a final reference that suggests the more experimental interest that Hogg takes in Archipelago. As the seascape painting in replaced on the living room wall, suggesting a resolution – if an uneasy one – there are two successive close-ups that finally show the picture without its frame, only the water. It is a clear homage to Michael Snow’s Wavelength (1967), a film as equally attentive to the possibilities of drama within a limited formal setup; of the play of tonal and chromatic variation and the sensitivity to the way in which what is within the shot and outside the shot can give equal life to a film. And how subtle focus and patience can elicit such remarkable effects.