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SHEFFIELD DOC FEST 2018

Review: Female Human Animal

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- Josh Appignanesi’s hybrid documentary is a remarkable and surprising portrait of two women, artist Leonora Carrington and novelist Chloe Aridjis

Review: Female Human Animal

“You are trying to intellectualise something, desperately, and you’re wasting your time,” artist Leonora Carrington told her cousin, journalist Joanna Moorhead, in an interview before her death in 2011. The footage of this interview and of others with Carrington is included diegetically in director Josh Appignanesi’s extraordinary hybrid documentary Female Human Animal, screening at Sheffield Doc/Fest 2018, which fuses surrealism and reality, psychology and drama, fact and fiction, to tell the story of the artist through the eyes of novelist Chloe Aridjis, a guest curator of the Leonora Carrington exhibition at the Tate Liverpool, which opened in March 2015. 

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In terms of biographical detail on the surrealist artist, Appignanesi gives us the bare bones. At a talk at the London Review Bookshop, Aridjis informs her audience that Carrington was a British-born artist who moved to Mexico and was a key member of the surrealist movement. She had two Siamese cats. Later, we find out that Carrington was the lover of Max Ernst (a relationship that ended when the German was arrested in France as an “undesirable foreigner”, following the outbreak of World War II). Apart from glimpses of Carrington on a television screen giving interviews, it is by showing her paintings that Appignanesi challenges us to glean something about the artist who once described herself as a “Female Human Animal” and claimed that her alter ego was a white horse.

Eschewing observational documentary techniques, talking heads and voiceovers, Appignanesi instead chooses to concentrate on Aridjis. As in fiction films, she is unaware of the presence of the camera following her. Scenes are clearly staged, which raises the question of whether or not this is really a documentary. But the plus side of this technique is that Appignanesi is able to show us a window into the internal dialogue of Aridjis. We see her chatting to friends, talking about being single and going on a date, but we also see her looking pensive, and then glimpse apparitions of her imagination and dreams. It becomes clear that she is a mirror of the artist that she is curating. Appignanesi wrote the screenplay after interviewing Aridjis and mixing these words with stories from Carrington’s life. There are constant parallels between the two women – even the man (Marc Hosemann) who Aridjis goes out on a date with bears a remarkable resemblance to Max Ernst. It is a major and surprising step forward for Appignanesi, whose previous films include the Jewish-themed Song of Songs [+see also:
film review
interview: Gayle Griffiths
interview: Josh Appignanesi
film profile
]
and The Infidel [+see also:
trailer
film profile
]
.

Shot using a rare 1980s video camera, with a nostalgic colour response, the film has a found-footage aesthetic. When the action veers away from the observational and into the dreams, fears and desires of Aridjis, the surrealist elements are reminiscent of David Lynch, while the thriller storyline that develops could have been plucked from a Paul Schrader screenplay. The way Aridjis’ father is photographed at the end of the phone is reminiscent of a James Bond villain. It’s a surprising, elegiac film with a thumping soundtrack by Andy Cooke that works by stoking interest in both Carrington and Aridjis, since it does not intellectualise about their lives, but rather creates a fantasy psycho-docudrama. Documentary surreality, if you will.

Female Human Animal is a Jacqui Davies presentation of a Minotaur Film Ltd production, which received backing from Arts Council England.

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