Stalk Footage

Josh Appignanesi, Female Human Animal, 2018, VHS, color, sound, 74 minutes.

EARLY ON in Female Human Animal, the docufiction by Josh Appignanesi, novelist Chloe Aridjis makes an observation that will echo throughout the film. “Well, this modern life and modern art and modern love—I don’t know, it all seems a bit soulless to me,” the author laments to an offscreen interlocutor. “I was probably born in the wrong century. But one just has to keep giving the century a chance: See what happens.” Dislocation and disenchantment are central tropes in Appignanesi’s cinematic portrait, which divides its attention between Aridjis and the late artist and writer Leonora Carrington, whose paintings and interviews haunt the film from its opening shot. The two women’s career paths appear to be obverse sides of the same coin. Aridjis, a New York–born Mexican novelist who has spent much of her adulthood in England and Germany, encountered the elder Carrington—a Lancashire-born Surrealist who immigrated to Mexico during World War II—as a twentysomething, and the two developed a lengthy correspondence until Carrington’s death in 2011 at the age of ninety-four.

For Female Human Animal, Appignanesi began recording Aridjis during her tenure as cocurator for the Carrington exhibition at Tate Liverpool in 2015. But along the way, he transformed the footage of gallery confabs and star-studded art parties into something more fantastical in order to capture Aridjis in a state of perpetual anxiety about both her professional and dream lives. Between grueling interviews for the exhibition and imminent deadlines for a new book, she walks the narrow streets of East London, whose baroque landscapes match the painterly, grotesque descriptions in her novels. She suffers recurring visions of death and rebuffs the advances of male friends and a smarmy literary agent (Angus Wright). Amid this inner turmoil, a rakish stranger (Marc Hosemann) with a taste for meat and sadism begins to stalk her in what becomes an erotic folie à deux.

Shot using a variety of cheap mid-1980s camcorders Appignanesi purchased during production, the film, with its low-contrast palette and flat resolution, summons the lurid visual aesthetic of the United Kingdom’s video nasty era. The amateur technology also suggests a vintage home movie, thereby accentuating the quotidian aspects of Aridjis’s character as she oscillates between documentarian and fictional subject. To deepen this uncertainty, there are scenes that mimic those from Aridjis’s own Book of Clouds (2009) and Asunder (2013), as if the author had slipped momentarily into the worlds of her moony narrators, Tatiana and Marie. Like her protagonists, Aridjis is framed wandering the city in aloof silence, often in search of the stranger or her roving cat Ludwig, her eyes penetrating the deep space beyond the camera’s picture plane, often through gauzy plastic or against mirrored surfaces. In a powerful shot of Aridjis’s face in a foggy bathroom vanity, her feral beauty appears uncannily like Carrington’s own in an early self-portrait. Indeed, the riddle of Aridjis’s absorbing performance lies in its ambiguity of purpose: Has she been cast in a vulnerable character study or a winking metanarrative on sexual mores? The film’s conspicuous play of scopophilia is no doubt complicated by Appignanesi’s role as the male auteur of a largely distaff drama that evokes—on the surface, at least—a half century of female-centered sexploitation, from Roman Polanski’s peak horror films to David Lynch’s sadistic arthouse. Yet Female Human Animal seems to demonstrate a calculated shift in the genre’s heteronormative formulas: Aridjis (who is also the film’s co-scenarist) appears to be more voyeur than object, more aloof agent than silent vessel, more fourth-wave heroine than surrealist hysteric.

Josh Appignanesi, Female Human Animal, 2018, VHS, color, sound, 74 minutes.

Underlying Female Human Animal’s feminist odyssey is Carrington’s portrayal as a hysteric by the male-dominated art world. After escaping a patrician pedigree in Lancashire, Carrington discovered the Surrealists at an international exhibition in London in 1936, then exhibited her work two years later at the Paris Exposition Internationale du Surréalisme. Her celebrity, however, hinged on her affair with Max Ernst and on her being the inspiration for his The Robing of the Bride, 1940. She was later praised as one of the “boldest and most lucid” minds in André Breton’s “Prolegomena to a Third Manifesto of Surrealism or Not” (1942)—ironically, this was shortly after her internment in a Spanish asylum for suffering a nervous breakdown. The victim-as-muse was a favored tableau for many male Surrealists. Their recurring fascination with the corpse-like femininity of the shop mannequin—assembled, posed and disarticulated at will—was imaged throughout the interwar period, often to simulate mutilation and decapitation. However, Carrington, like Remedios Varo and Leonor Fini—two other women oft slotted into the Surrealist movement—preferred matristic motifs with a pronounced indebtedness to folkloric and alchemical traditions. The domestic subject of her painting And Then We Saw the Daughter of the Minotaur, 1953, in which a family of animal spirits and human children commune inside a castle with various alchemical symbology, is a repudiation of the Surrealists’ hypersexualized Minotaur myth. Rather than erotic violence, the painting extols maternity as the source of the marvelous.

Unpacked during the Liverpool exhibition, Carrington’s Minotaur features prominently throughout Appignanesi’s film. It seems to follow Aridjis, a fetish imparting some secret knowledge or caution, as does archived video footage of the elder Carrington herself, who speaks very much like Doña Rosalinda, the witch/abbess of the underworld in Carrington’s fantastique novel The Hearing Trumpet (1976). “I think to a great degree we are manipulated by forces over which we have no control: such as our birth, our death, and our instincts,” Doña Rosalinda observes in one extract. And, more pointedly, “You have to own your soul, as far as it’s possible to own your soul—or for it to own you. But to give it over to some half-assed male? I wouldn’t recommend it.” As her words increasingly mirror Aridjis’s erotic badauderie from museums to back-alley orgies, Carrington serves as something of a high priestess or mother goddess. Her admonitions on the male sex prove apt when Aridjis’s mysterious stranger invites her to a hotel suite, where he ambushes her in a jarring sequence of sadomasochistic acts. There are echoes here of Carrington’s own psychic and physical confinement by the suffocating men of her past—her father, the Surrealists, and the asylum doctors. Yet in Appignanesi’s loose restaging, Aridjis enacts a symbolic retribution by slaying the Minotaur. Rather than being condemned into a spiral of abjection, Aridjis is delivered from the realm of fantasy to the everyday world with renewed clarity, just in time for the exhibition opening.

Female Human Animal premieres in New York at Brooklyn’s Cobble Hill Cinemas on February 12 and in Los Angeles at Veggie Cloud on February 18. Chloe Aridjis will read from her new novel, Sea Monsters, at McNally-Jackson in New York on February 13. Female Human Animal will stream on Mubi beginning February 27.