Director: Josh Appignanesi
Screenplay: Josh Appignanesi and Chloe Aridjis
Cast: Chloe Aridjis as Chloe Aridjis; Marc Hosemann as the Man; Angus Wright as the Publisher; Patrick O'Kane as the Detective; Leonora Carrington as Herself
Synopsis: An author and curator on an exhibition on the surrealist artist Leonara Carrington, Chloe Aridjis (playing herself), encounters a strange yet handsome man (Marc Hosemann). Things do not go to plan.
It's not worth elaborating on a prologue when I openly found Female Human Animal completely missing the point of the subject. Surrealism is arguably my first ever obsession, even before cinema, finding books on the subject in my secondary school library at between the age of eleven to thirteen, developing from my adolescence a greater awe and influence from the movement even in my daily life in how I think about the world around myself. In hindsight to this, the film is the sort that would be dismissed outright by surrealist artists from the era themselves, and that's a tragedy as Leonora Carrington as a painter and author is, from the few pieces I know, someone who should have a greater reputation within the movement. More so as, reading a lot in my obsession, I'm fully aware for all their virtues the original French Surrealist movement were unfortunately chauvinist and sexist too. They had flaws and gender politics is such a case, even beyond the questions of how they festished and found danger in the female body but even how they treated their own like Germaine Dulac, director of The Seashell and the Clergyman (1928) which infamously had a cold reception from even her fellow surrealist artists. The boy's club has slowly been chipped away as the women who were also surrealists or even muses have been proven to be as exceptional as their male counterparts, more so now as Surrealism is as viewed for its various movements globally as it is the original French movement, and a film about Carrington would've been wonderful to see if it had succeeded.
Sadly, Female Human Animal is a case of an utterly intriguing hybrid which should have succeeded in showing the world of Carrington, even if it completely steps away from her motifs and tried its own curious ideas with merely her ideas on display. A study of Carrington's work, including not only scholar Chloe Aridjis playing herself but archive footage of Carrington being interview used as a voice of goddess over the proceedings as well; a psycho drama, in which a potentially dangerous dark eyed handsome stranger appears in Aridjis' life as her world in general becomes strange; and, noticeably, shot on VHS tape, a really peculiar stylistic choice that not only reminds you how much detail is lost in videotape, fuzzy as hell as it swallows clear outlines and detail, but was the most intriguing detail about Female Human Animal for myself viewing it.
The truth of the matter is, whilst it has its moments, the film is slight. It also has the unfortunate effect of presenting the art world and English metropolis as pretentious and utterly tedious, way too good at doing so to begin our protagonist's sense of disenchantment but never adding a sense of greater depth, coupled by never feeling like a truly in-depth interpretation of Carrington's work. Her work (understandably) could only be recreated uncensored for cinema as animation, but the lo-fo attempt has motifs (Aridjis' in-film cat, the creepy father who can predict the weather over the phone) which briefly exhibit a tantalising surrealist edge. The VHS look, set among ordinary Liverpool environments, presents an additional advantage of its murkiness, how bright coloured artificial lights bleed onscreen or a warehouse becomes ominous in the shadows. However, it never feels like a true tribute to Carrington's subversion.
Instead, it becomes a very clichéd, trite psychodrama about a sociopath stalking Chloe Aridjis that (ironically) exhibits the worst aspects usually found in no-budget genre cinema of telling rote versions of stories from larger budgeted films, never being inventive as it forcibly tells a predictable story instead. It never feels subversive, which is the biggest sin and there's an uncomfortable sense of exploitative especially as, voicing the figure providing themes on love and sexuality, the slight and malnourished story doesn't justify the interview footage of Carrington at all. The only really interesting thing is Marc Hosemann's strangely magnetic performance as someone clearly off from the get-go, but has enough charisma that, in one of the few interesting plot dynamics, Aridjis can willingly let herself be brought into a relationship clearly dangerous when her life is bland beforehand and he intrigues her by literally invading her environment.
Another surprise is how bland the film is in terms of premise and content, and it amazes me I can actually cross reference Female Human Animal to the type of shot-of-video genre films of yore that are usually dismissed as garbage or even unheard of by the type of publications that will cover Female Human Animal. These films, loved by fans like myself, are openly known for being technically deficient in most cases and needing to be approached with an understanding of their immense failures, but are celebrated for their unintentional moods of delirium.
FHA, despite being shot on video too and trying to evoke an uneasy weirdness, does place its head on the guillotine with such films rarely given critical praise like Boardinghouse (1982) would completely overshadow it completely in terms of truly surreal sense of mood. The surrealists did watch "bad" cinema in their heyday but the goal, in one of the most meaningful things I read on them in terms of my own cinephilia, was never for irony but the result of finding the marvellous even in technical failure, the unnatural edge which a film like the infamous Canadian production Things (1989) would've rewarded someone like Salvador Dali tenfold. In contrast FHA is sedate, a deliberately put together production with no sense of the unearthly, transgressive, feminist or interesting within itself, feeling more like a tedious erotic thriller in premise.
The only real surprise is an ending credits sequence of boxes being wrapped up, following the motifs of plastic bags and suffocating cellophane throughout the production, one of the only remotely "odd" moments in the entire film.
Abstract Spectrum: Lo-Fi/Weird
Abstract Spectrum (High/Medium/Low/None): None
Female Human Animal is a neutered, sanitised take on surrealism in spite of the worthy figure it idolises in Carrington and its intriguing production style. It's a film which has many different aspects but masters none of them as it is spread out too dully.