Josh Appignanesi‘s Female Human Animal is an odd little film. Equal parts documentary (mockumentary?) and feature, it chronicles a few weeks in the life of novelist Chloe Aridjis (playing herself) as she struggles with demons both human and otherwise. Ostensibly, it’s a psycho-sexual thriller about the complicated nature of desire. In reality, there’s not much going on beneath the surface.
Aridjis, who appears in virtually ever shot, is a hugely compelling screen presence. Vulnerable and honest, but unwaveringly professional in her to-camera dialogues about artist and friend Leonora Carrington (who passed away in 2011), she anchors everything. Amid a cast of non-actors, most of whom drift in and out of frame without making much of an impact, Aridjis is clearly the strongest performer (if hers could even be considered a performance).
The setting is the real-life Tate retrospective of Carrington’s surrealist works, for which Aridjis was guest curator. While preparing for the honor, she worries aloud about giving an introductory speech in front of a big crowd, her friends give her a hard time about never finding the time to meet Mr. Right, and her cat Ludwig (a skilled performer himself, it has to be said) starts to behave erratically.
While milling around the gallery, Aridjis spots a strange man lurking in the wings (Marc Hosemann, a professional actor who way overdoes it). At first, it seems only she can see him. Is he a phantom? A part of her subconscious? A symptom of stress? After following the man and getting spooked, the two somehow end up on a date together. Against the wishes of those close to Aridjis, she eventually strikes up a sort-of relationship with him.
Female Human Animal is shot with the grainy VHS quality most often associated with the infamous video nasties. If the film committed fully to its own sinister vibe, rather than just hinting at it, the results might have been more satisfying. As it stands, it’s 75 minutes of suspicion and suggestion, with a couple of moments of actual violence (one of which is betrayed by truly terrible sound design — even Troma had the good sense to use a watermelon).
There are plenty of smash zooms into Carrington’s demonstrably spooky works of art, and Aridjis’ home is a nightmare realm of nooks and crannies, but Ludwig is the most frightening presence — and that includes the sort-of stalker who becomes his owner’s lover. It’s all a bit flat and nonsensical, in spite of the try-hard stylistic flourishes.
Aridjis’ presence somewhat saves Female Human Animal, and it’s not surprising to learn she devised the concept with screenwriter and director Josh Appignanesi. Without her, it would be difficult to engage with any of the outlandish ideas presented here. Aridjis is, essentially, a blank canvas on which to project everything the movie has to say.
To be frank, it isn’t even a whole lot. So much of the film’s sinister energy is derived from watching Aridjis lose her grip, but the short run-time doesn’t allow for much introspection. She simply freaks out a bit, then quickly apologizes, and moves on. Even the climactic moment with her stalker/lover is over before it’s really begun.
Carrington herself appears, in archival footage, happily puffing away on a cigarette and espousing her own personal views on relationships and the self. One almost wishes there was more of her. Still, it’s often more interesting to watch a strange failure than a boring success, and there is plenty to admire about Female Human Animal.
Aridjis’ humanity, and her connection to the material (her real-life relationship with Carrington is keenly felt), are both well represented and handled. A straight documentary about Aridjis might actually have been more compelling, since she’s the most captivating component.
The behind-the-scenes glimpse at the world she inhabits is fascinating but, again, all too fleeting. The thriller elements, meanwhile, are neither fleshed out enough to garner any actual fear, nor left unknown to the point of requiring further reflection. The film isn’t remotely sexy either, with its lone romantic sequence playing uncomfortably awkward rather than racy.
It’s a confusing enterprise all around, but — at the very least — Female Human Animal is unlike anything else out there, for better or worse.
Joey Keogh (@JoeyLDG) is a writer from Dublin, Ireland with an unhealthy appetite for horror movies and Judge Judy. In stark contrast with every other Irish person ever, she’s straight edge. Hello to Jason Isaacs.