In the realms of the surreal

There’s a strange blurring of the lines between fact and fiction in the film Female Human Animal. Directed by Josh Appignanesi and starring London-based writer Chloe Aridjis, the film opens as a documentary of sorts focussing on Aridjis curating an exhibition of work by surrealist artist Leonora Carrington. But the film eventually morphs into a darker tale of obsession that takes on surreal aspects itself.

The English-born artist and writer Leonora Carrington is perhaps best known for her surrealist paintings. These works, which often explored ideas of identity and sexuality, were rendered in a style that had a striking visual impact, but which also invited the viewer to inject their own stories onto the canvas. Mythical beasts and symbolism were familiar topics, such as And then we saw the daughter of the minotaur, (1953) – a painting that suggests a frozen moment from some unseen tale.

These odd themes of identity, myth and sexuality weave their way into the film’s progress as it explores the world of Chloe Aridjis (or at least a stylised version of her). Aridjis feels out of synch with the world around her and only seems comfortable when contemplating the worlds created by Carrington. She’s hesitant to take on a role as a public voice for the exhibition and at one point is seen stumbling over words during an interview.

Challenged by a friend to expand her dating horizons, Aridjis comments: “The man I’m looking for doesn’t exist.” But when a strange and elusive man enters her life, Aridjis is slowly tipped into a world of obsession and uncertainty.

At points in the film, other real-life cultural figures make an appearance, such as Juliet Jacques, Marina Warner, Adam Thirlwell, Stewart Home and Tom McCarthy. Leonora Carrington herself appears (in archive footage) which further drives home the documentary aspects of the film. This blurring of documentary and narrative is also strangely part of Sea To Shining Sea, another recent film that plays around with genres (see our review of that film here).

There’s a mesmerising quality to Female Human Animal conveyed, in part, by the fact that it was shot on VHS. This lends the film an unusual, nebulous quality which enhances the surreal elements and gives the whole affair a dreamlike atmosphere.

Meanwhile, a mostly electronic soundtrack (care of Andy Cooke) helps to enhance the dreamlike qualities of the film. Carrington’s And then we saw the daughter of the minotaur, is also a touchstone for a composition by iconic electropop outfit OMD which closes the film. There’s an organic, primal quality to this track that seems at odds with OMD’s synth-pop foundations, but which works perfectly in conveying the unease and uncertainty that the film embodies.

At the London screening of the film, a Q&A session with director Josh Appignanesi (The Infidel, Song Of Songs) and co-writer and star Chloe Aridjis took place to explore the genesis of the film.

Queried on whether the film was conceived as a documentary or a drama at the start, Appignanesi considers the question carefully: “That’s a tricky one. It’s in the middle somewhere, I guess. The thing about documentaries is that you can’t see inside people’s inner lives, you can’t see into the unconscious. All you’re recording is people’s observable reality.”

“For me, in order to work on the project” comments Aridjis, “I would have to feel that I was a character actor in a film with a narrative about someone else. That was the only way I would be free enough and not self-conscious”.

The work of Leonora Carrington obviously looms large in the film’s foundations. But was the intention to craft a homage to Carrington and draw the spirit of her paintings into the film? Appignanesi dwells on the serendipity of the film’s production: “I think it ended up being more of a homage than I originally intended. I’d not heard of Leonora Carrington before. But then she [Aridjis] was asked to curate this show – and that’s the background because there’s a narrative.”

“There was an overarching narrative idea but if you proceed that way, then things bubble up. It really is like surrealism is an attempt to find roads to the unconscious that’s not led by language, but sort of circumventing it somehow.”

Equally, Aridjis was surprised by how much Carrington’s spirit was infused in the production via Appignanesi. “I was astonished by all the footage he found, all archival footage of Leonora in which she talks in a spectral presence and seems to be commenting, like a Greek chorus.”

The muted visual style of Female Human Animal is enhanced by the fuzzy VHS aesthetic that it employs. In order to achieve this, Appignanesi ended up buying 80s-era cameras from eBay, although they were not without their problems (“They kept blowing up! They would overheat, go wrong…”). But ultimately, the choice of medium seemed to be in synch with the film’s themes. “When you shoot Carrington’s work, which is already almost VHS-like with this egg tempura, this weird palette that melds quite well, if you’re going to have this notion of figures, if you like, coming from the paintings or whatever, this is quite a cool way to integrate that.”

Female Human Animal utilises a lot of themes and recurring motifs, particularly the use of plastic as a covering or restriction. Again, this concept appears to be something that came together over the course of the production. “I’d never actually been to an installation in a major gallery before” muses Appignanesi, “These dust sheets and everything wrapped in plastic. I thought, well as a filmmaker you just go straight to that because of what it visually gives you, the sort of spectral figure and all this kind of stuff.”

At the same time, the film’s narrative elements of sexually charged power dynamics touched on plastic as an unsettling motif: “The wrapping of a woman, the sort of objectifying male presence that tries to lock everything down and seal it away and kind of own it.”

Having Chloe Aridjis also play a fictional version of herself in the film also presented a challenge. Aridjis is already well versed in creating characters as the author of two successful books. “It did raise some of the same issues of tensions” comments Aridjis, “For instance, my novels are all first-person female narrators and so on the one hand it’s very easy when people read, female writers to confound the author with whatever the narrator’s thinking or doing.”

“So, in this case it was a very strange experience of being sort of first-person narrator, again in a narrative that was being, to some extent, written by someone else. It was strange actually, for instance the scenes where I was always in front of my computer writing, because it’s such a solitary act. In general, I’m quite private and very shy, but to be doing that very solitary act with Josh and the film crew – I did feel I had to inhabit a slightly different person, even though I’m playing a writer in the film.”

The film’s use of electronic music is also significant, but the addition of an original composition by the band Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark provides a surprising highlight. Aridjis discussed how this came about: “It’s one of the many, many bands I listened to in the 80s. A few years ago, they played at the Royal Albert HallDazzle Ships and Architecture & Morality – and my friend Andy Cooke, who did most of the soundtrack, an old friend of mine from university, very kindly invited me and my sister and a group of friends.”

“I enjoyed the concert so much, it was while I was working on the [Carrington] show, and on the way home my sister and I we looked up OMD and we saw that Andy McCluskey, the singer, collects art and lives in or near Liverpool. It was very easy to contact him via the Tate, because he’s a patron of it and he emailed back saying he’d gone to see the Leonora Carrington show twice and he loved it so much, that he’d be thrilled to be involved in some way to compose a track for the film.”

Quizzed about the film’s unusual title of ‘Female Human Animal’, Aridjis again reveals a connection with the film’s painter-muse. “That’s the title of an essay that Leonora wrote in 1970. Actually, our working title for a long time was And then we saw the daughter of the minotaur, which was the painting that sends my character into the reverie. But then it was too long and seemed less and less tied to the themes.”

“But the whole point was that Leonora, in this essay she wrote in 1970, just as the second wave of feminism was sweeping the west, she said “Don’t call me this, don’t call me that. All I am is a female human animal.” She didn’t want to be defined any other way. So, it’s actually the way Leonora defined herself.”

Female Human Animal is a compelling slice of cinema which has a slow, often brooding quality to it. The surreal elements draw on the work of Leonora Carrington in a sense that’s both subtle and also powerful. Similar to her paintings, the viewer is left to question the image – or to impose their own ideas about what’s real and what isn’t.

Female Human Animal is streaming via Mubi.

The new novel from Chloe Aridjis, Sea Monsters, is due out in 2019.