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Female Human Animal – TLS

30/01/2019

“I was born in the wrong century”, the  London-based Mexican novelist, Chloe Aridjis declares near the beginning of Female Human Animal, Josh Appignanesi’s new low budget film, a knowing blend of the assured and the amateurish which understands its place in cinema history and consequently has a lot of fun playing around in it. The times are soulless she declares, quoting her idol, Leonora Carrington, who felt the same way. But Aridjis is a romantic nevertheless, a would-be adventurer searching for love, so she adds: “You have to keep giving the century a chance. See what happens.” It’s a sentiment that also reflects the film’s defiant stance: the times may be bad but you still have to roll the dice, play the game, put on a show.

The show being put on here is an exhibition of Carrington’s work at Tate Liverpool which Aridjis was asked to curate because of her friendship with the English-born artist who had once hung out with the surrealists in France before running off to live in Mexico. But just what kind of a show are we watching? Appignanesi begins by presenting a staged documentary with Aridjis – a magnetic presence – playing some version of herself. The camera follows as she unpacks Carrington’s plastic-wrapped paintings, gives nervous press interviews, presents an excruciatingly awkward bookshop event, and talks to friends about the lack of suitable men in her life. At home we see her writing by the light of a laptop, her cat beside her, two eyes glinting in the dark. Appignanesi’s noirish shots of the woman and her snarling animal recall Jacques Tourneur’s psycho-sexual thriller, Cat People (1942). Intercut with this are images of Carrington’s haunting, anthropomorphic paintings and footage of interviews with her. She also loved cats, hated the idea of female confinement, and defied male logic in her art: in one interview she observes that intellectualising is a waste of time.

As if to demonstrate this belief in the arational, a man materializes out of the blue before Aridjis, and the unlikely couple embark on a game of cat and mouse. From here the film coils into more surreal territory, and the version of herself that Aridjis plays slips seamlessly from something approximating the real, into the imaginary. But just as the genre of the film remains in doubt, so, too, the question of how much of the action takes place in Aridjis’s mind is left unresolved. This aesthetic of uncertainty perfectly underscores the suspense of the film’s action, and as in the underground and queer cinema that Female Human Animal is indebted to, Appignanesi finds a poetry and politics in trashy and ephemeral production values: here, it’s the heterosexual mainstream that is depicted as perverse. Shot on VHS, Female Human Animal resembles the polaroid photography and early video of the 1980s – enthusiastically trying out slow motion, blurry images, colour saturation, and parodies of horror conventions. The retro look and nods to predecessors (Hitchcock, Chabrol, Warhol, Morrissey, Akerman and Gorris all come to mind) demonstrate that Appignanesi knows precisely where his film is “coming from”, both cinematically and in terms of its feminist discourse. At one point Aridjis tells a friend she is looking for men to molest, “men with hair”; another time she is fascinated by a man devouring a meal of meat; ultimately, she transforms herself from hunted to hunter – all of which suggests the director has learnt a thing or two from his mother, the feminist Freud critic, Lisa Appignanesi, and from Angela Carter whom she interviewed in 1985.

Chloe Aridjis in Female Human Animal, 2018

There’s another display of the unity of aesthetic and story in a superbly excruciating scene between Aridjis and the strange man, where the film’s amateurishness matches and amplifies the characters’. Marc Hosemann plays Aridjis’s would-be lover with an antic mix of the sexual, dangerous and comic, raising the prospect that he is a projection of her unconscious desire. As in The Big Sleep (1946), the two interview one another as prospective lovers. But unlike Bacall’s and Bogart’s flirtatious ingenuity, every question Aridjis asks is banally mirrored back or answered in statements flagrantly designed to tell her only what she wants to hear. “Do you have money?”, she asks, “Yeah”, he answers, quick as a flash, “I’m super-rich”. In a buffoonish parody of the desirable heterosexual male, he tells her: “I love…meat, sex, art in that order.” Rather than Hollywood stars exuding sexual chemistry and verbal wit, Appignanesi gives us a nightmare of embarrassment and ineptitude. Yet in this mis-matched comedy there is a contemporary version of Hollywood’s wisecracking romances, one that is both painfully recognisable and oddly sexy.

Since the war years when cinema started showing women in positions of authority, Hollywood has delighted in cutting them down to size, depicting them as incompetent and implying that they are not cut out for the role of professional. As a result, many actresses have made a career out of dramatizing female neurosis. Appignanesi’s film is a powerful antidote to this, framing Aridjis’s lack of confidence in a way that exposes the conditions women operate under. Meeting misogyny everywhere (creepy, presumptuous and humiliating men, a father who chips away at her confidence, a lover who tries to choke her to death), Aridjis’s insecurity and bemusement is not only unsurprising but redefines what is logical: in contrast to the arrogant and affectless males she encounters, her uncertainty seems fully human.

At the end of his film Appignanesi returns to the plastic motif, expertly bringing us back from the metaphorical into the material world. The tired old stories of victim and predator are still clogging up our imaginations, he suggests, just as rubbish continues to resurface, lethally choking the environment. And what can we do with this knowledge? Perhaps, as Carrington proposes, we can “re-enchant the world”, turning detritus into art. So Appignanesi recycles the dancing plastic bag scene from American Beauty (1990), only this time around the aesthetic pleasure we receive is undercut by an awareness of the disseminating and deadly nature of what we so thoughtlessly trash. Finally, as in all the best thrillers, he concludes with a warning that our problems are only just beginning, revealing the nightmare laying in wait: in this case, reams of plastic coursing off a production line.

“What have you learned, Chloe?”, Aridjis’s father asks repeatedly down a crackling telephone line. Quite a lot, Female Human Animal suggests, coming, as it does, at the end of a long line of film and feminist explorations of the politics of desire.

This review appeared in the TLS as ‘Material Desire’ on 11.10.2018.

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