Josh Appignanesi's Female Human Animal (2018) is showing November 22 – December 21, 2018 on MUBI in many countries around the world.
Why would you make a movie about a friend? If the most fascinating, moving and deeply encountered people are, de facto, the ones you’re closest to, the question should perhaps be reversed: why would you make a movie about anyone else?
Of course, the novelist Chloe Aridjis, who lent a version of herself to our film Female Human Animal, is a particularly fascinating person. But then I would say that: she’s a friend. Which, when it comes to making films out of real people living their real lives, also presents a problem: what if the most interesting, dramatic, liminal, hallucinatory part of someone—the bit about them you find most compelling—is their inner life? How do you record the invisible interior with a camera? Particularly that dimension of our interiors that consistently defies us—our unconscious? One answer, probably the best answer, is to act it out.
So I invited Chloe to do that. To enact a kind of performance of herself, or undergo a novel reality for herself, based on my very free adaptation of certain traits in her life, certain trends in her fictions, and the uncanny collision of both with the life and work of Leonora Carrington, the famous surrealist artist and writer whom she befriended before Carrington’s death in 2011 in Chloe’s native Mexico. The adaptation was free in the sense of free association: the way shrinks shrink your head being not too far from the way surrealists get to their art. Both are a royal road to the unconscious.
We shot Chloe at real events, but framed and edited them with a certain narrative momentum in mind, a certain version of her facing us. Other times, we took real events but inserted people into them, or had Chloe approach people in a certain way. Over the course of two years, shooting partly around the Carrington retrospective she curated at Tate Liverpool, I’d look at the footage and then ideas for further moments would take shape. Some overarching, psychothriller-ish notion of plot was there from the start in ongoing conversations I was having with Chloe, but the detail sieved itself, or dredged itself up from the process. In particular I was interested in certain repetitions—ones Chloe had noted in herself, and which one can also find in splinters of her novels—that have the hypnotic force of trauma. Some of these we staged as enactments—you could call them re-enactments of the fantasy life. Mine or hers, it wasn’t always clear. Auto-fiction at one remove. The female gaze seen through the male gaze, or maybe vice versa. Trans-gender, trans-genre. Documentary fiction, social surrealism. Acting, being. Making up yourself, selfing up what you’ve made. Like the fictions and paintings of Carrington, we hoped to let the indeterminacy of the process determine the result. For once, the choke-hold that stifles and renders predictable so many films, whether commercial or "arthouse"—scripts, development meetings, financing processes, generic forces, cultural competition, internalized market presumptions—couldn’t grip quite so tightly. Nor were my own over-intellectualizations allowed to take hold, pried from my own grasp by a grab-the-camera serendipity, running breathily drunk through freeze-fogged nights, high art dragged low by underground hilarity. As Carrington herself chastens us imperiously, in a crucial piece of archive we stumbled upon: “You’re trying to intellectualize something, desperately… and you’re wasting your time.”
There were touchstones, almost but not-quite rules. For her inner life to find a relatively natural expression on screen, we mostly cast the film with people real to Chloe, people from her world, either playing exaggerated versions of themselves, or playing composites of some half-similar hybrid creature. Real people, real places, but played for nightmares—or for laughs (the two are surprisingly close). Resonances and discoveries kept popping up, despite the fact that, or precisely because, we didn’t quite know what the hell was going on. It’s a fun way to make a film. A fun thing to do with a friend. Maybe without quite noticing it in this way some bit of the zeitgeist got trapped on celluloid—well, on VHS, that gorgeously lurid and nostalgic format perfect for recording the spectral presence of our own perverse romances in everything we do. Maybe something zeitgeisty about women and men right now. Someone told me we’d queered heterosexuality, pulled off the mask off its normativity, revealed it as more pathologically ritualized than we’d all maybe noticed for a while. We’d rendered its certainties about itself suddenly unconvincing, puppet-like. It’d be good if we had managed that, but of course I can’t be the one to say, since by any conventional standards—the kinds of standards our film gleefully rejects—I’d be placed in only two out of the three categories in question here: Female, Human, Animal. Still, to quote from the ending of another better-known romantic comedy: “Nobody’s perfect.”