Joanna Hogg’s “Unrelated” (2007): The Desire to Belong

On holiday from an emotional reckoning …

Have watched Unrelated, as well as Archipelago (2010) and Exhibition (2013) in preparation for seeing Joanna Hogg‘s most recent film, The Souvenir (2019), which Film Comment (to which I subscribe) has applauded vigorously, provoking my curiosity, expectation. Of course, in the case of High Life (2018) and Zama (2017) this may be followed by disappointment …

The plot of Unrelated

Poster promoting the film "Unrelated" by British director Joanna Hogg.
Am I the only one who thinks she’s sporting an eyepatch?

Hogg’s debut film, Unrelated (2007), tells the story of a middle-aged, married British woman, Anna, who arrives at an Italian villa to join former school chums and their kids for holiday.

From the beginning Anna seems down, desperately needing an escape from her husband. I presumed they were contemplating a divorce. Only in the end of the film do we learn the cause of her disquiet. Anna keeps her distance from her former classmates and instead attaches herself to their mostly grown children, college students enjoying the weightlessness of that developmental moment.

The center of that group, Oakley, played by Tom Hiddleston, draws Anna into his orbit, albeit not necessarily intentionally. The teens act out all of the scenes expected of them, including one in which they have wrecked a borrowed automobile. Although she had been an at least observing accomplice, Anna keeps mum she is obligated to tell her friend (and subsequently betray the trust of the teens).

At that point, the sympathy between Anna and the teens is dissolved. Anna is alienated from even her classmate friend, at least superficially—an event inadvertently leading to Anna a greatly resisted confession that explains her demeanor at the film’s start.

Before the holiday, she had confused the first traces of menopause with the ostensible signs of a pregnancy, the latter about which she had been excited. She had anticipated pregnancy and the joy of that future, only to learn that those mistaken signs indicated her age and inability to bear children. The thrill of new life gave way to the foreclosure of that possibility and the end of one chapter of her life.

What is the meaning of the title of Unrelated?

The film’s title finally becomes intelligible. Lacking children and the identity resulting from them, she is merely “unrelated.” The tensions are not resolved, but the holiday concludes. Everyone is friendly in departure. The rough edges have been smoothed over. Anna is the last one to be picked up by a taxi to her presumed flight back to the UK, at which point the films ends unceremoniously.

Unrelated lacks many of the narrative tools used by American cinema, most importantly, a soundtrack. No dolly shots, even at the beginning and ending. The camera is always stationary; the characters walk into the frame and then walk out. No quick shots inducing a false movement.

Promotional material for the 2007 Joanna Hogg film "Unrelated"

On the movie poster, the film is compared to anything by Éric Rohmer—perhaps a stretch but certainly well-positioned for its potential audience. Yet there may be some ground for comparison there. Conversations are what drive Rohmer films, and the characters talk about such fascinating things. In Unrelated, by contrast, the characters do not necessarily opine provocatively. But the movement of the film follows these conversations, even though they are really just the means through which the emotional events take place.

Anna doesn’t reveal what’s troubling her until the end of the film, when it becomes clear why she’s been avoiding her friends and spending her time with their children. She cannot face her friends because their familial identities are reminder of what she cannot have.

Although Anna’s finally explained herself to her friend and secured that friendship, it is not for the sake of that friendship and it does not pretend to provide closure. Anna must go home, but nothing has changed. She’s only escaped momentarily, and the return will be

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