“She didn’t accept the world she was given as a woman,” observes Chloe Aridjis of artist Leonora Carrington at the start of Female Human Animal. “She didn’t accept the world as it superficially appeared.” A statement that could also apply to the creation of this genre defying documentary. Director Josh Appignanesi refuses to accept the usual tropes of the fact seeking genre – ditching the familiar talking heads and transparent filming process – to dive down a rabbit hole where reality becomes indistinguishable from surreality.
On the surface, the premise of Female Human Animal is very simple: novelist Chloe Aridjis is co-curating an exhibition at Tate Liverpool of surrealist artist Leonora Carrington. Although Carrington was British she spent much of her life in Mexico, where Aridjis grew to know her personally. Appignanesi follows Aridjis in the months leading up to the show launch as she juggles curating with writing and socialising. This is pretty much where the distinguishable facts begin and end – and even that is a bit hazy. Many of her acquaintances are played by actors, so whether she actually attended a masked avant-garde party or has a father that can predict rainfall will remain a mystery.
Instead of taking his cues from the somewhat specialist and rather alienating process of curating an exhibition, Appignanesi is directed by the surrealist spirit of Carrington’s work. Even the name of the film comes from Carrington’s belief in animal familiars. Her mystical paintings appear on screen suddenly, accompanied by sinister chimes or dramatic blasts of brass. Aridjis’ life mirrors the artist’s fantastical scenes; her cat’s eyes reflect those of Max Ernst in Carrington’s portrait of him from 1939, and after Aridjis encounters a curious man we see his serious expression in Quería ser pájaro (I wanted to be a bird).
In true surrealist form, Appignanesi opens the film with a dream sequence. Aridjis is haunted by Carrington’s inaudible voice, an undefinable creature in a painting, and a shadow of a man. She battles through a sheet of plastic that suffocates her. Understandably, on waking Aridjis looks disturbed but these themes continue into her every day. Plastic blocks her route from one gallery to the next in the Tate, blurring her vision and forcing her to push through it to see clearly. While the shady man – who may or may not be a criminal – becomes a love interest.
Remnants of Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dali’s ground-breaking surrealist film Un Chien Andalou can be found all over the place. Both films are violent and grotesque, full of eyes and faces, with characters watching from windows or stuck behind doors. There is no clear or conclusive narrative in either, but both are captivating, pondering on the trauma of existence. Even in scenes where there could be a story, Appignanesi disrupts it by cutting or focusing solely on Aridjis instead. When she hosts a genuine Q&A with author Juliet Jacques about her book Trans we hear very little of the actual interview and see clips of Aridjis stumbling over her words and looking uneasy.
It is the unity of Appignanesi’s brilliant cinematic vision and Aridjis’ compelling and vulnerable performance that makes Female Human Animal resonate. Shooting on a 1986 Panasonic AG-450 video camera, Appignanesi is able to depict a world with soft edges and vibrant colours, very much like Carrington’s paintings. In fact, the whole film – with its animals, undecipherable faces, dream-like motifs and off-kilter conversations – is very much like a Carrington work come to life.