Friday 5 October 2018

The cat and the curator: "Female Human Animal"

Of all the cinematic curios 2018 provides, Female Human Animal will likely stand among the most unusual. The writer-director Josh Appignanesi has worked consistently across various forms and genres since his breakthrough in 2005 with Song of Songs, and had something close to a copper-bottomed hit with 2010's The Infidel. Here, he's taken the small amount of funding available to British filmmakers working outside the usual structures to make a hybrid film that could, at a push, be sold as a genre piece (it's theoretically a thriller, with horror elements) but also stands as a film about art, love and the place of a fortysomething creative woman in the modern world. As if the latter wasn't enough in itself to make distributors gulp, Appignanesi has, perhaps as a Dogme-style reset, shot it using the kind of camcorder you or I might have documented the kids' birthday party with circa 1992 - so the action unfolds within a square image, with a persistent tracking flicker at the bottom of the screen that suggests what we're watching may well be replaced, at any moment, by the episode of The Bill or Cadfael over which Appignanesi has apparently taped.

The choice isn't entirely unsuited to a tale where the heroine feels in some ways temporary, and that the gallery walls may be closing in on her. She's played - to all external appearances as a troubled variant of herself - by the intense-seeming Chloe Aridjis, introduced as co-curator of a Tate exhibition on the surrealist British painter Leonora Carrington, and thereafter seen busy doing the rounds of publisher meetings and well-catered book launches. (There's a nicely observed encounter at one such soiree, where neither party can hear the other properly over the rumble of small talk and schmoozing - a moment that perhaps explains some of the deals struck and careers forged as a consequence of these events.) While she puts the exhibition together, we're offered a behind-the-scenes-at-the-museum psychodrama in which Chloe appears to be haunted not just by Carrington's spirit, but in the real world by a tall dark stranger with an eccentric demeanour and an unplaceable accent (Marc Hosemann). Is he a suitor? A stalker? And who's looking after the heroine's cat?

In the week of a new-gloss A Star is Born, the results make for decidedly rough-edged counterprogramming: we are reminded of how jolting video edits can be, and the smeariness of the format's images. Yet Appignanesi appears to have factored some of this in; what's fascinating about the film is its sense of a director scratching something out using primitive, long-left-for-dead technology. (Its closest equivalent would be the restless experimentalist Michael Almereyda's Another Girl Another Planet and Nadja, unnerving indie artefacts turned out on Fisher Price's Pixelvision camera.) Chloe's progress involves four or five properly Lynchian sequences that are all the more disconcerting for coming at the viewer in a format we won't have encountered for several decades. It builds towards a big date that starts out promisingly before taking a turn, yet Appignanesi lays a lot of the thematic groundwork in those early scenes that realise, as few movies have, that galleries are incredibly spooky places: too quiet, almost invariably empty, full of dead people communicating either the secrets of the universe, or in signs we can't fully understand. You could find the key to eternal happiness, or even true love, in there. You could equally lose your mind, and your life.

Female Human Animal opens at selected cinemas from today.

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