Christopher Machell

Film Review: Female Human Animal

★★★☆☆

Shot on analogue video, Josh Appignanesi’s Female Human Animal is a visually arresting, surrealist piece whose reach occasionally exceeds its grasp, but which is never less than intriguing. Chloe (Chloe Aridjis) is a writer and fine art curator, currently supervising an exhibition of the surrealist painter Leona Carrington.

At home, she lives a solitary life with her cat, while at work she avoids public speaking and is forced to bat away the unwanted sexual advances of her looming colleague (Angus Wright). Her passion is for the paintings of Carrington, who features as herself in several documentary-style interviews. Carrington’s surreal, mythic imagery weighs heavily both on Chloe’s psychology and on the film’s visuals.

Indeed, the dodgy tracking and warped images of camcorder footage, replicated here by cinematographer Tristan Chenais, are more than a mere nostalgic device for millenial filmgoers weaned on pristine digital cinema. The ghostly artefacts and frayed edges of the screen hint at a fragile, collapsing reality, while the grainy, blurred quality of the image brings a strange tactility to the film – particularly in the shots where Appignanesi zooms in on freeze-frames of Chloe’s face.

Never let it be said that video can’t capture conventionally beautiful shots, too. Appignanesi frequently uses negative space to dwarf Chloe against her environment or to bathe her in darkness, illuminated only by the glow of a table lamp, made warm by the indistinct hues of the analogue camera. A juxtaposition between the blank electronic page of Chloe’s monitor and the matte white of her gallery walls, match-cutting her distant body with the blinking cursor of the monitor, is so good that it’s used twice.

As Chloe obsesses over Carrington’s art, the lines between reality and dreams blur. She dreams of a man spying on her from behind the membrane of a clear plastic sheet, and lo and behold, he appears at the gallery, though it’s Chloe, not the mysterious stranger, who pursues him until they go for a nightmarish drink together. Meanwhile, her beloved cat, a mischievous shadowy creature that looks as though it has sprung from one of Carrington’s paintings, is run over by a car in one scene and then inexplicably later appears unharmed. The nonsensical logic of dreams runs through the Female Human Animal, a sense that is heightened the further the film unfolds towards its conclusion.

A late-stage cinematographic change further suggests the imaginative subjectivity of Chloe’s experience. Where the film is lacking is ultimately depth; the visuals are bold, sometimes even breathtaking, and the film touches on art-world critique, psychology, surrealism and subjectivity. Visual motifs of looking at and through objects – with clear plastic sheeting appearing at key moments – act as a unifying motif for the film’s conceptual themes. Yet the meaning of Female Human Animal’s sometimes disparate ideas remains frustratingly opaque.

Christopher Machell | @Dr_Machell