Women Are as Roses: On Joanna Hogg’s Unrelated

Unrelated (2007)

Anna (Kathryn Worth) stands in a field and stares into the distance, a vague look of concern on her face.
Kino Lorber

Then let thy love be younger than thyself,

Or thy affection cannot hold the bent.

For women are as roses, whose fair flower

Being once displayed, doth fall that very hour. 

 

—Shakespeare, Twelfth Night, 2.4


When Anna (Kathryn Worth) arrives without her husband, Alex, at the Tuscan vacation home of an old school friend’s family, her excuse for his absence is weak: a thinly veiled attempt to avoid the awkwardness of explaining the current tension in her marriage. Anna longs for space, a brief escape from the emotional turmoil of her reality. Yet over the course of her trip she speaks with Alex frequently, arguing with him on the tiny mobile phone she keeps pressed to her ear during early morning runs through the Italian countryside near the villa. In this modern age, even great physical distance cannot keep us safe from our troubles, or provide true refuge from the ones we love. Really, the person we want to escape most of all is ourselves. On a vacation, we can pretend to be what we wish we were: younger, older, more intelligent, more interesting. We can be someone alluring. We can be someone anonymous, revel in the sensation of our own disappearance. We can be anyone other than the person we have to be any other given week of the year. We learn to embrace the excitement of the new and to accept the disappointment when this reinvention doesn’t work out quite the way we hoped it might.

The Tuscan villa is a house divided between the middle-aged parents (“The Olds”) and their young adult offspring (“The Young”). In the daytime, they lounge by the pool, take small trips, eat together as a family; at night, the Olds retire early and the Young blast their music, laugh loudly, smoke, and drink. When she arrives, forty-something Anna enters into this latter scene. She finds herself out of place, unexpected and uninvited to this small, intimate gathering. And though the Young soon recognize her, welcome her, and help her settle in, no amount of hospitality can soothe the residual effects of their initial blank-eyed stares, seemingly saying, you do not belong here.

Caught rather literally between the Young and the Old, Anna quickly gravitates toward that younger generation, despite having two decades on them. She decides—perhaps foolishly and hastily—that what she wants from this holiday is not the compassion or understanding of a dear old friend who would willingly provide a shoulder to cry on. What Anna really wants is to forget herself. The Young eventually welcome Anna as one of their own, as if to say: We trust you, you’re not like them, you still have time. As if those who see time as an unlimited resource have any kind of authority over its distribution. Anna has a youthfulness that sets her distinctly apart from the other Olds; not a parent herself, she hasn’t truly given up that part of herself that still feels free and capable of abandoning all reason. As she becomes absorbed by the lifestyle of the Young, she abandons her loyalties to her own cause, to her own generation—to the people who might better understand the specific heaviness of her heart. Instead, Anna embraces the reckless behavior of the Young, as it if could cure her. 

One of the perks of youth is the privilege of forgetting—or postponing—those issues which will one day govern both waking life and the dreams that stem from those anxieties. For the Young, these fears loom far in the distance. These troubles remain hypothetical—questions upon which to ponder, but not to dwell. The Young do not yet understand the weight of regret, the fear that you have failed as a human being, and the better version of you that, on this twisty road of life, exists just a few turns back. 

*

Joanna Hogg’s Unrelated (2007) is the kind of film that allows you to live inside another person without them telling you straight out what they’re thinking.

Anna’s face—the emotive eyes, the gentle smile, the marks of wisdom (but also the marks of naiveté) that live in her skin—draws attention in the most unexpected of ways. With the camera often fixed to her, even if she remains in the margins of a scene’s conversation, we find ourselves learning to read her moods, to understand her thoughts and feelings even as she works to hide them, and imagining ourselves in her place. Often, she hardly speaks a word.

When Anna’s friend Verena (Mary Roscoe) tells a semi-embarrassing story from their youth, Oakley (Tom Hiddleston) watches Anna’s reaction intently, searching her face for a small betrayal of her true feelings, though she plays the moment off with grace. Though Oakley sees most women as targets to practice his charms, Anna is delighted by his attentions to her. As the only unrelated member of their party, she frequently catches his eye and enjoys small side-conversations, jokes, and moments of brief physical intimacy with Oakley—all rather innocent, from the outside.

Oakley’s interest in Anna does not feel insincere. But it’s a self-indulgent fascination, a way to combat his boredom. Any sort of relationship with her puts very little at stake for Oakley; he’s young, free from responsibility, and eager to enjoy himself at the expense of all others. His easy flirtations and moments of emotional depth often give way to casual callousness, and even glimpses of cruelty. When he asks Anna deeply personal questions about her marriage, and about her lack of children, he steps over a line that he does not at first recognize as inappropriate to cross. For him, these questions remain abstractions, unfounded in his own, personal reality. But to Anna, these questions have come to define her life. They touch upon the most vulnerable piece of her heart. She cannot escape them, no matter how far she travels, or how strongly she diverts from her normal routine and lifestyle. Oakley, the charismatic and carefree boy half her age, cannot possibly understand the harm he might cause her.       

To Anna, the Tuscan holiday may serve as a much needed but harmless escape, and Oakley as the cherry on top of the sundae. But if instead the holiday acts as an unhealthy avoidance mechanism, then Oakley may be the ultimate avenue for Anna’s self-destruction.         

*

Beauty is brief, fleeting. Often, it’s gone before we ever even realize we had it in the first place. 

We don’t hear it spoken aloud, but we see the way that Oakley’s eyes make Anna feel when she knows he’s looking at her. Following a late-night skinny dipping scenario, Anna returns to a private room in the villa to examine herself in the mirror, to see what the Young have just seen, albeit through a thin veil of moonlight. She wonders what they think of her body. She allows herself—perhaps for the first time in a long time—to feel desirable. Later, she purchases black lingerie at a shop in town. Perhaps her motives are pure. Perhaps she buys the lingerie for her own satisfaction. But perhaps she also considers the possibility of what might happen if the sustained glances between her and Oakley turn into something more.

When he eventually rejects her, Oakley does so not necessarily out of cruelty, or even out of a greater sense of right and wrong, but because he recognizes the trouble it might cause him, the awkwardness it might lead to. They don’t belong to the same family, and they may not meet again once the vacation comes to an end. But they do share an oddly familial proximity, and besides that, the differences between them are so vast, so innumerable, that almost every reason for their being together would be a mistake. Anna’s motives are equally as dishonorable as Oakley’s—if not moreso. She wants to use him as a tool to forget herself as she feels now, and to remember what it was to be young, and to be wanted, and to be free—if she ever truly felt that way at all. This combination can only lead to misery. 

Ultimately, Oakley’s affection cannot hold the bent. When his attention inevitably turns toward other women—younger women—Anna finds herself, once again, feeling out of place and unwanted, humiliated and stupid. 

Three characters from Joanna Hogg's Unrelated sit by a river
Kino Lorber

*          

The title Unrelated places emphasis upon the fact that Anna is a friend, bonded by neither blood nor marriage to the people with whom she inhabits this bit of time and space. There’s an intense sense of volatility in this status—the sense that one wrong move could lead to irreparable damage: ostracization. Her loose ties to these people do not include an assurance of unconditional love.

When Verena confronts Anna about her strange behavior and clear preference for spending time with the Young, she does so out of hurt and embarrassment, but mostly out of confusion. She knows that something must be wrong, but she can’t crack it. Their relationship is that of once-close friends who have grown more estranged than either would like to admit. Anna finds her escape in the late-night partying and spontaneous ways of the Young. Drinking and chatting and reminiscing with an old friend would only bring her closer to the depths of despair. She fears the kind of intimacy that comes with the territory of reconnecting with a person who knew you in a past life, who knows you well simply by virtue of time. She knows that if her performance falters, Verena will read her like a book, and Anna will have nowhere left to hide.

Following a minor accident involving a borrowed car, the Young create a cover-up that Anna silently endorses. Keeping this secret places her at odds with the Olds—and especially with Verena—but revealing the truth means betraying the Young. When Anna finally folds, she loses the trust of one and the respect of the other. Verena scolds her like a child, and Oakley receives a fierce chastising from his father, George (David Rintoul), the tension between father and son finally boiling over after days of clashes and near-misses. In an instant, Oakley turns back into a little boy, spoiled and careless. The rest of the group sit out by the pool in utter misery, every word of the heated argument painfully overheard in full clarity. In this moment—the low point of their trip—even the spacious Tuscan villa does not have room to accommodate more than two deeply discontented souls.

Brutally and passionately told off by the ones she betrayed, Anna runs away once more. At a nearby hotel, on her own, she sits quietly, free from the gaze of young men and concerned friends. But unlike her husband, Verena comes to find her. During their long overdue and cathartic conversation, Anna finally manages to confess the truth behind her pain between anguished cries and sobs, as if saying the words aloud is what makes them real. 

Having recently learned that she will no longer be able to have children, Anna sees herself floating through space, untethered to the world around her. Her wistful, far-off looks now seem rooted to these feelings of isolation and her attempts to accept her status as permanently out of place wherever she goes. Verena holds her tightly as Anna cries and confesses, “I feel so stupid…I had my opportunities and I didn’t … and I didn’t take them,” as if she could have known she had so little time left to spare, as if retrospect hadn’t colored her opinion of her younger self. 

Anna sees family as the one thing that can keep her from fading out of existence entirely. She observes the life that her friend leads, and could not feel more alienated by it: “You’re surrounded by your family. You belong somewhere. I will just be forever now on the periphery of things.” Hogg often trains the camera on Anna, even in the scenes that she hardly speaks, because otherwise we might not notice her at all—her quiet struggles, her quiet desires, that fade almost imperceptibly into the background.

*

Even when the dynamics seem to have shifted so dramatically over the course of a few short days, in the end, nothing much has changed at all. Outside of the unreal space of vacation—caught somewhere between reality and fantasy—few resolutions will survive the trip home. Hardfought revelations may fade with time, and even strained family ties will snap back into place.

When it’s time to say goodbye, we say goodbye fondly, and with a twinge of regret despite the frequent discomfort. Like a stage play, performed each night for a new audience—and each night slightly differently—we know that this time and place will never return. We reflect tenderly, sadly, and romantically upon those days—some of which deserve their legacy, but most of which do not.

Anna disembarks from the Tuscan villa in the same fashion in which she arrived: alone. The confession of the thing that has weighed so heavily upon her since her arrival seems to have lifted, if only slightly. The goodbyes are warm, if slightly perfunctory; the family must return to their lives, as she must return to hers. Nothing much will have really changed.

And yet, when Anna calls Alex for the final time, from the back of the taxi, that sad, thoughtful smile of hers turns to something fresh, something untroubled, something no longer twinged with bitter-sweet memories and regret. She looks younger and more vibrant than she has the entire trip. Sometimes a good vacation is like a bad dream. Returning home, like waking from a nightmare, is a relief and a pleasure. Giddily, Anna describes to Alex the beauty of the countryside as she passes through it. They lose cell connection, briefly, but Anna’s smile never falters or loses faith that the connection will return.