Boldly Going Nowhere

Unrelated (2007)

Unrelated (2007) | New Wave Films
New Wave Films

Pretty much annually, I forget that people whose lives aren’t organized by an academic calendar tend to experience summer as…a season, whereas I know it as a fundamentally over-determined unit of time: beginning not with solstice, but graduation; marked by the thrill of temperatures that’ll oppress within weeks; by competing and equally exhausting imperatives to productivity and relaxation; and by evasion—meaning, if summer resists its own presence, existing largely in projection (as object of winter-long fantasy) and retrospection (as in the maligned back-to-school writing prompt), then our participation narrows to indexing its hasty progress, lamenting the rapidity with which all that potential seamlessly converts to guilt surrounding projects unaccomplished and itineraries unexplored.

Depressing? Usually, if not exclusively. Summer moves slowly but passes too fast, a paradox that pressure-cooks intimacy at a rate and intensity far outpacing ordinary time. Watching Joanna Hogg’s 2007 debut Unrelated in anticipation of The Souvenir’s pending wide release, I recognized a summer movie I’ve been loving lesser versions of for years. Like the fleeting season in which it’s set, and like the woman whose ambivalence Hogg tenderly documents, Unrelated can’t make up its mind. Simultaneously an unconsummated romance, aspirational Europorn, and menopausal comedy of manners, it’s summer in a nutshell: bad feelings in good light.

We meet Anna (Kathryn Worth) rolling her suitcase up to a villa in the dark. She’s joining a Tuscan holiday in progress, the cast of which divides into parents (old school friend Verena/“V” plus her husband Charlie and cousin George) and kids: Verena’s two teenage children, Jack and Badge; her husband’s son, Archie; and George’s son, alternately referred to as Oakley and Tom (played by Tom Hiddleston, in his first film role). Anna twice upsets the balance, first by arriving alone—with the non-explanation that her partner Alex couldn’t make it—and then by gravitating toward the younger contingent, her acceptance among which is signaled when Oakley asks her to keep their racy anecdotes in confidence: “Just don’t tell the ‘olds.’”

This is how Unrelated dramatizes the ways age and milestones can yield conflicting demographic information. Linked by generation and friendship to the parents, Anna is herself (an) old, yet her appearance, her energy, her invisible husband and non-existent kids all allow her to move between ranks—a fluidity Worth depicts as buoyancy in one moment and aimlessness in another, quietly demonstrating one of summer’s trademark dangers: how easily the pleasures of “freedom” may shade into the fitful discomfort of being adrift.

At risk of detachment, Anna anchors her experience to a crush. Gorgeous even in vast cargo shorts, Hiddleston’s Oakley emanates indifferent charisma. He cuts his eyes sideways to offer Anna an after-dinner cigarette, and to watch her expression after she declines. Later, in a too-short stretch of companionable couch silence, he pretends not to catch her studying his face. Privileging these moments with surgical precision, Unrelated understands how physical longing can displace daylight or meals as the organizing logic of a day; how minutes at a communal breakfast table may anticipate a single body’s arrival to the room, or how the simple math of who rides in which car can transform an afternoon.

But what makes the film so special, so seasonal, is the way it not only conveys but formally enacts the tactical meandering of crush time. Discussions of Hogg’s visual style tend to stress her so-called static camera, but the stasis at work in Unrelated’s Tuscany is far from inert. Like Anna hovering self-consciously at the entrance to her bedroom—replaying a loaded moment, or hoping for interruption—the camera’s tendency to hold after action passes through the frame feels freighted, awkward and wishful. It isn’t just still; it lingers.

Elsewhere, the lingering camera isn’t strictly cinematographic. In one sequence, Anna sits circled up with the teenagers in a meadow carpeted with hay. She accepts a blunt from Oakley; his eyes twitch over her as she drags. The film cuts to a dashboard view of their car flying down the road, where Breathless-y jump cuts propel us further forward. From the stereo, set you freeeee trills over a throbbing beat. We see Anna smiling in the passenger seat, and a profile of Oakley driving one-handed. Something—corn?—whips by in a blur. The others are packed across the backseat, heads lolling, Archie’s t-shirt providing the apt caption, Boldly Going Nowhere. Time dilates to accommodate the duration of precisely this feeling: the contradictory wish to stay in a sensation of momentum. The club anthem’s lyrics are relevant too, if not entirely parseable over the wind: When we touch each other / In a state of ecstasy / Want this night to last forever / Only love can set you free.

When characters touch each other, it’s in site-specific acts of quick, refutable intimacy. Oakley using Anna as a human shield in an impromptu mud fight. Anna wrapping her arms around his chest on a drunken escalator ride. All results of elaborate pretense, and when the pretense drops—halfway through the film, when Oakley demurs an invitation to Anna’s room—the spell of pure potential (a state of ecstasy if ever there were one) breaks too.

As it happens, Anna doesn’t much want to be free. On the phone with Alex, even her characterization of desired time alone comes across in the register of belonging: It’s just been so nice to just to lose myself in this big group of people. And far more painful than Oakley’s low-key rejection is the double-edged exile Anna faces after telling V what really happened to their loaner car (which we last saw being towed from a ditch, presumably following a lubricated joyride). Having betrayed the olds with her silence and the youngs with her disclosure, Anna suffers alienation from both camps. The film spatializes her exclusion in a somber midday procession to a neighboring villa. Out on the road, the adults lead, teens follow, and Anna, straggling, cabooses alone.

The image returns me to the olds playing a game, the one where a card on your forehead announces an assigned identity you use questions to guess. Having narrowed herself to a Winnie-the-Pooh character, Anna guesses Tigger. “I’d like to be Tigger,” she adds. She’s Eeyore. The resemblance is obvious. Just look at the melancholy playing around her eyes, threatening to capsize her little smile. Look at her trailing after the teenagers down the grocery’s wine aisle. Look at her uncertainly treading neon water, the last skinny-dipping grown-up to get out of the pool.

Anna puts language to her condition in one of the film’s most pronounced long takes, a four-minute breakdown in a room she rents after ghosting the villa. Where the bucolic home signaled family and inclusion, the hotel is dingily impersonal, supplanting hilly trails and metronomic cicadas with nearby traffic and trains.

V pays an imploring visit, and the women perch on opposing edges of the bed. In an earlier bedroom confrontation, hanging in the doorway while V lotioned her arms in the mirror, Anna was unable to account for all the time she was spending with the kids. You know, it’s just nice to just…She shook her head and crossed her hands in the air as if refusing a canapé.

Here, too, Anna’s curled hands cup nothing in inarticulation, then wring up and down as she starts to cry. She clutches at her friend like she’s drowning. In a halting monologue, Anna explains she’d thought herself pregnant, then learned she was actually experiencing the onset of menopause. “I’m not going to be able to have children anymore,” she sobs. The heels of her hands go up to her eyes. V tries to intervene, to gently amend Anna’s unspoiled vision of her own maternal role, but Anna counters at comparable length: “I’ve seen you. You’re surrounded by your family. You belong somewhere. I will just be forever, now, on the periphery of things.”

Anna’s confession cues an abrupt cut; by the time she splashes water on her face, the moment, and whatever followed, has passed. We watch her return to the villa from overhead at a cautious height, overhearing only the air tone of grass snapping below. That night, she rises from bed to ask the teenagers to lower the volume on their standard poolside hang. No longer one of them, she’s on the periphery of things.

And yet, by its end, Unrelated seems to have a more radical perspectival shift in mind. On the morning of departure when the cars are all packed, Oakley leaves Anna’s life with no more fanfare than a chaste double kiss. Ciao. We’ll soon see Anna gaze out to the hills, rotating around her figure until the way forward becomes the way back. Tellingly, she addresses her real good-bye to V, in whose embrace the words tumble free.

“Don’t you just want to run away sometimes?” Only every year.