Close-Up is a feature that spotlights films now playing on MUBI. Josh Appignanesi's Female Human Animal (2018) is showing in November and December, 2018 in most countries.
Substituting the sub- of “subconscious” with the sur- of “surrealism,” Josh Appignanesi’s new genre-bending documentary is a meditative exploration of psychic visuality. Shot on video, the film follows novelist Chloe Aridjis, as she curates a retrospective at Tate Liverpool on Leonora Carrington (1917-2011), a little known British surrealist who spent most of her life in Mexico. In the beginning of the film, the observative camera lingers on Chloe’s professional encounters with a comforting impartiality. But later the camera becomes a tool of intimation, as her infatuation with a mysterious man spirals down to the most abstract base of human desire. The presence of the camera provides in turn a grasp of reality and a descent into a dream-like state. Female Human Animal as a title proposes a thematic trichotomy and, in content and cinematography, a docu-fictional dichotomy. The film’s provocative multiplicity attests to a state of flux in identity, dreams, and sexuality. Attending to modes of irrationality, Appignanesi composes a sincere yet frightful evocation of female psychology and the broad horizon that is the anatomy of desire, comparable to Paul Verhoeven’s work in Elle (2016) and Nicolas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon (2016). Transcending a (otherwise rightly deserved) description of the film as feminist, Female Human Animal is a film about erotic oscillation between our civilized and animal nature.
The relationship between cinema, dreams, and desire has been a favorable topic since the surrealist movement made the relationship apparent in art: Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí’s Un chien andalou (1929), and André Breton proclaiming films as a way to engage with the unconsciousness. In its treatment of both reality and fiction, cinema can be considered inherently surrealistic, combining elements of the known and the unknown, to form a third substance: tactile and ephemeral at the same time. If this is originally valid for celluloid film, it is not immediately relevant to Appignanesi’s decision to shoot Female Human Animal on video. Today, this medium bears a nostalgic or experimental aura, its palpable grainy texture and lack of depth compose a two-dimensional image common to old TV or home footage. Such an oscillation between a remnant of either public (TV) or private life (home video), reveals the inner push-pull dynamics of a medium otherwise reserved for underground iconoclasts.
In its reduced dimensionality, the use of video in Female Human Animal conceals a longing for intimacy. Apart from being a strategic device to open up a flattened deep space, video’s doubled meaning is the material backbone of the hybrid nature of the film. As a docu-fiction, it shifts between restrained observation (curatorial arrangements, interviews, and the exhibition opening) and interior imagery of Chloe’s nightmares, remnants of which reflect and resurface in her professional environment: spiders’ webs and anthropomorphized bi-gendered animals. Her dreams are trapped in the labyrinth of the Tate, while plastic covers impede her way, and a cat figurine turns into an actual cat in her embrace—portrayed blurry, out of focus, shot through windows, glass, or polythene, all of which positions the film’s dream world in close contact with its reality.
One night, as Chloe is toiling over the blank pages of her newest book, the camera grants her a grainy halo lit by her laptop. The quiet agitation is portrayed by a rapid shot/counter-shot conversation with the empty Word document, until the camera draws us to a glass of water on the table, its bottom magnifying one of Leonora Carrington’s paintings featured in the Tate exhibition. While this sequence conjures a symbolic stare into the abyss, Chloe plunges her—out of focus—fingers into the glass, and the camera penetrates the water surface. The eye of the camera becomes Chloe’s hand, and yet—our hand feels wet. This sequence also establishes a reflectional relation between Leonora and Chloe through the water surface, recalling the myth of Narcissus, or the mirror of Alice to Wonderland.
After collaborating with Appignanesi in his deeply personal coming-of-father-age documentary The New Man (2016), Chloe Aridjis merges a fictionalized version of herself as writer and curator with an in-depth introspection. Female Human Animal is a film about Carrington and Aridjis, inasmuch as it is about poetic imagination and its psychological depth. While the film does not depict acts of artistic creation, it is artworks—as a finished product of transformative imagination—that imbue its square frames with tension of a dramatic kind. The beginning of Female Human Animal is marked by rare interview footage of Carrington herself, her wrinkles as expressive as her silence between short sentences, as an off-screen voice counts down from nine to one in German (a reminiscence of Carrington’s love affair with German Surrealist Max Ernst?). While these snippets appear throughout the film as guiding mantra of Chloe’s character, we get closer to Leonora as a fierce, respectable artist, one in tune with instinctive forces and the metaphysical significance of the soul—her “sense of an enchanted world beyond reality,” as described by Chloe.
Resonating with the beliefs and dispositions of Leonora, Chloe is portrayed as fearless but complacent to gender roles, as the men in her life (book editor, father, admirers) seem equally demanding and didactic. While she is aware of the uneven power relations, a missing (or repressed) part of her élan vitally keeps her obediently passive. That is the case until she starts noticing a stranger’s presence in the gallery halls and bookshop corridors, lurking in the corner of parties, and even following her on the way home. A perfection of mystery, this nameless man (Marc Hosemann) is the catalyst of Chloe’s desire hunt. As his presence, as illusory as a male version of André Breton’s Nadja, determines the background tensions in Chloe’s nervousness, the camera emphasizes her inability to express herself, as it either pulls away from the conversation, or mutes Chloe mid-sentence. Seemingly incapacitated by desire, she is empowered by the same longing to capture the elusive man, to know the unknowable. In the process, she begins to pursue and trail him, their formidable power dynamic resembling an animal mating game.
Yet, this is not a case of a man building up a successful women, nor a film about a woman shedding her patriarchal skin. Female Human Animal decomposes its documentary premises to propose a meditative narrative about a psychic world in which female, human, and animal are no longer contradictory. Advocating the elastic, dynamic movement of non-fixed identities—in both male-female and human-animal terms—Appignanesi’s latest hybrid documentary transcends its ground in realism. Instead, it emphasizes the indispensable loss of self in favor of otherness, to discover that the same otherness you seek, is already present somewhere in between your humanity and your animality.