Her fascination with the relationship between interior spaces and existential plight finds purchase in this vacation drama.
here exists a small but not insignificant subset of movies about middle-aged women, betrayed by love or untethered by heartbreak, seeking solace in foreign environs. They backpack through the wilderness, testing their grit and survival skills, or traipse through The Continent, uplifted by its seasonal beauty and an abundance of fresh produce. These tales (mostly heteronormative) consistently aim for uplift and culminate with the women emerging anew, like freshly forged diamonds (or ones that are merely reappraised under new light). Joanna Hogg’s Unrelated (2007) categorically defies these conventions. While the fundamental plot is broadly the same—as a woman vacations in Europe, she falls for a man and confronts her own desires and regrets—the movie abstracts the usual melodrama and wrings a poetic film of quiet defiance from aesthetic splendor.
Anna (Kathryn Worth) joins her old friends, Vera and Charles, and their family on vacation in the Tuscan countryside. In the midst of her own marital troubles—an alleged business trip has prevented her husband from joining, as if anyone would really pass up a fully funded getaway such as this—Anna declines the company of her peers, uncharitably dubbed “the olds,” gravitating towards their progeny instead. She tags along on a beer run, smokes an airmailed joint. Lightly enmeshed in the complex dynamics of the younger group, she finds herself growing steadily attracted to their magnetic twenty-something ring-leader Oakley (Tom Hiddleston, who, in his feature debut, projects a combination of mischievousness and chivalry that’s come to mark so many of his roles.)
The film unfolds like a series of fragmented snapshots strung elegantly together: Hogg cuts abruptly between scenes, eliding grounding exposition and explanations. We see people sipping poolside negronis, then in the next scene, a car is towed at dusk. Hogg marks the passage of time, Ozu-like, by the skyline (daylight recedes into violet) and weather (raindrops fall vigorously into the pool from an unexpected storm). Above all, she is a connoisseur of enviable interior spaces, captured in fastidious but not stifling images, making Unrelated an unembellished slice-of-la-dolce-vita.
One gets the sense that Anna may not be as well off as her friends, who can afford to go summering, and the children have the sort of inexplicable poise of the privileged, though Hogg’s not necessarily interested in stripping any of that way. Her prerogative is Anna, and the barely-there romantic tension between her and Oakley. They cake each others’ faces in mud in an opalescent lagoon. They skinny dip. It all looks like a bit of harmless fuckery to the naked eye, in part because of Anna’s unceremonious position as a middle-aged woman, deemed least desirable by society. (Clomping around in flip flops and old clothes, including a patterned dress that belonged to Worth’s mother, Anna is the opposite of a reality TV-style MILF.)
Unrelated also staunchly avoids highlighting Anna and Oakley’s low-key flirting; close-up shots of knees grazing each other occur, but you have to look for it. In fact, there are hardly any closeups in the movie at all, another quiet subversion of emotional spectacle. Yet, there remains a palpable tension as Hogg conjures the illicit thrill of tacit longing: essentially, what it feels like to have a crush—that nascent feeling you haven’t fully worked out in your head, much less formally announced.
Deliberately positioning her camera at a middle distance, which allows us to see full bodies framed, Hogg doesn’t summon our gaze to anything in particular, but encourages us to be flies on the wall, or, more appropriately, viewers of some painted tableaux who are invited to scrutinize at our leisure. This unobtrusive photographic style works in tandem with the film’s naturalistic performances, which also don’t draw attention to themselves. Worth possesses an unlikely on-screen presence, delivering an absorptive performance that feels organic and authentic, without any signs of overt self-awareness. Eschewing polished perfection, she embraces the physicality of a woman her age, with her body and posture, her gait and carriage, all embodying the subtle imperfections of lived experience. I find a pedestrian authenticity in her small clipped gestures and expressions: her eyes flutter left and right in practiced politeness, her chin tilts one degree closer to the floor. Sometimes her whole body seems to wince.
Most of this muscular orchestration projects a persuasive mingling of embarrassment and regret. The film is seeded with an ambient shame and conveys the overall feeling of being invisible and unnoticed. Not exactly comfortable with the “olds” or the “youngs” Anna is “forever now on the periphery” as she describes it—an admission that we gradually come to understand in its full depth and origin. While the sentiment is familiar to anyone who's been left on the outside, it also hits close to home for Anna, who doesn’t have children and feels caught between both age groups.
The film’s aural topography only amplifies Anna’s isolation. Don’t be alarmed if you feel the need to put on subtitles; the spoken dialogue intentionally assumes a muffled and slightly incoherent quality—a deliberate decision that artfully accentuates the characters’ cloistered emotions. Like Anna, we’re kept at perpetual arms length, like a pesky eavesdropper or a secondary friend at a party. When people do speak clearly, it’s all the more forceful and punctuative, a disruptive burst of purposeful clarity, such as Anna and Oakley’s frank dissection of sex and marriage and fidelity. Other times, the loud and ferocious vocalizations happen off-screen behind closed doors, like Oakley’s fight with his dad. In Unrelated, anger is a disreputable sensation, kept at bay and transmuted into the dignified surroundings.
Throughout the film, Hogg probes the interplay between interior spaces and the emotional rifts between people. If Michelangelo Antonioni was renowned for using the impersonality of architectural structures to emphasize the psychological distance between men and women, Hogg employs female-coded spaces to subvert their sociological significance and comment on the relationship between the domestic and maternal. These themes have become a hallmark of her movies: Exhibition (2013) and The Souvenir (2019) take place primarily in the homes of female protagonists, both of whom have made a point to prioritize artistic pursuits over family. The Exhibition house, a modern architectural marvel, becomes a central character of sorts, as does the hotel in The Eternal Daughter (2022), a meditation on art and family that explores mother-daughter bonds. By the end of a Hogg film, a shift imperceptible to the uninitiated takes place for these women. We witness their private rebellion, their quiet resistance to the status quo, by watching them embrace their identity instead of forging a new one.
Unrelated is available to watch for free on Vudu. It is also available to rent or purchase from Amazon Prime, YouTube, Google Play, and Apple TV.
Elissa is a film critic and culture writer living in Brooklyn, NY. Her work has appeared in Vogue, Screen Slate, MUBI Notebook, Bomb Magazine, and Eater. She also publishes moviepudding, a newsletter dedicated to film and food.