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How ‘Female Human Animal’ Blends Documentary with Fiction

A new film by Josh Appignanesi shot entirely on VHS, creates a portrait of novelist Chloe Aridjis and surrealist Leonora Carrington

Directed by Josh Appignanesi and shot entirely on VHS, Female Human Animal (2018) stars the writer Chloe Aridjis playing a writer called Chloe Aridjis, who is co-curating the Tate retrospective of the surrealist artist Leonora Carrington (which Aridjis did in 2015, with Francesco Manacorda). Also starring Marc Hosemann and featuring appearances from London-based writers including Devorah Baum, Stewart Home, Juliet Jacques, Tom McCarthy, Adam Thirlwell, Marina Warner and Zinovy Zinik, the film is scored by Andy Cooke with new music from Tearist and Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark (OMD).

Jennifer Higgie met with Chloe Aridjis, Josh Appignanesi and  Juliet Jacques in September on a balmy evening in London’s Soho to discuss the film’s themes and preoccupations.

Jennifer Higgie  What was the evolution of Female Human Animal?

Josh Appignanesi  I had recently made The New Man (2016), which Chloe is also in, which is more or less a documentary about me and my wife Devorah trying to have children. We took a creative approach to telling the story which made us wonder if we could make a film simply by shooting what’s in front of you. After all, the most interesting thing about our lives is our lives. But how do you represent an inner life with observable reality? The only way is to enact it. I wanted to continue working in a way that dug down deep into the unconscious.

Chloe Aridjis  These questions about how to represent an inner life were circling in Josh’s mind when I started working on the Leonora Carrington show for Tate Liverpool with Francesco Manacorda in 2015, and he asked if he could follow me with the camera and film me at Tate and at openings and various other events. Gradually, he developed more of a narrative.

JH  You’re not an actor but you seem to be very relaxed in front of the camera? 

CA It all felt very natural, as Josh is a friend. He ended up writing the script once he’d shot a lot of footage, but I never read it before we began shooting, so every scene was fresh and spontaneous.

JH  So, you didn’t write any of the script? 

CA  No, but it was inspired by conversations we had.

JH  In the film, you’re Chloe Aridjis, of course, but you’re also playing Chloe Aridjis as a kind of fiction.

CA  It was important that I was playing a character, or a version of myself. The film Chloe is more socially anxious and timid. But it was fascinating for me to see how a male friend portrayed my inner life.

JH  What was your relationship to Leonora Carrington? 

CA  She was a close of friend of mine in Mexico City; I’ve written about her and am close to her work, but I wouldn’t say she was a huge influence on me. Although, that said, we didn’t set out to make a film about surrealism, but it gradually developed into one.

JH  Josh, in the documentary footage of Carrington that you use in the film, much of what she says is echoed in the narrative, as in when she’s says: ‘You’re trying to intellectualize this, but it will never work!’ How did her ideas shape the film?

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Marc Hosemann in Female Human Animal, 2018, film still. Courtesy: Josh Appignanes

JA  When I found the footage, it changed the direction of the film; she became a sort of chorus figure about communication between women and about insider versus outsider. 

JH  How did Chloe herself shape your approach?

JA  Chloe is a close friend but she’s also a very romantic figure and she comes with a whole aesthetic. To represent Chloe’s life, we needed to include her friends and her cat Ludwig, and to enter the world of her flat. 

CA  Good friends performed versions of themselves.

JH  Juliet, you of course are one of the friends or characters in the film – did you feel you were performing a version of Juliet Jacques? 

Juliet Jacques  As Chloe said, the film begins like a documentary and then shifts into fiction. For example, an early scene, where Chloe and I are taking part in a book launch, is real. And in another, I’m talking to a couple at an art gallery and they ask what I do, and I reference my transition memoir Trans from three years ago and say: ‘Oh, it’s a very fashionable subject!’. At the time, I was genuinely fed up with the repetitive conversations I was having around my book. Other parts were more fictional: I hate going to parties, but I had to go to a lot for the film with Chloe’s friend Philippa. In one scene I wear a terrible red feather boa, which took me about six months to get over. I did ham myself up.

JA  I wanted that scene to reflect how we dress up to go out and perform. In the solo scenes with Chloe, she is very interior – we obviously all have different sides to ourselves, in terms of who we are publicly and who we are when we’re alone. In this sense, Sophie Calle was definitely someone I had in mind when I was making the film. 

CA When Josh first came to my home for dinner with the psychoanalyst Darian Leader, Darian said of my house and all the objects in it: ‘I’ve never seen someone whose unconscious is so much on display’. 

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Female Human Animal, 2018, film still. Courtesy: Josh Appignanes

JH  Chloe, you own a lot of VHS tapes; visiting your flat is like time travelling. Josh, is it just a coincidence that you shot the film on VHS when Chloe is such a fan of the medium?

JA  No, it’s not a coincidence. I love the nostalgic, romantic feeling VHS gives, it’s the format of our youth; it’s an aesthetic that suits someone disenchanted with the here and now, so it reflected a feeling that Chloe has that she’s out of time.

CA  Using VHS also created a lot of comedic moments; we’d be in the middle of a scene and the VHS camera would give up the ghost. 

JH  Josh, given the technical limitations, did you ever regret doing it on VHS?

JA  Yes! There are scenes where the light is so poor I worried we wouldn’t see anything, but we managed to make it good enough for the big screen using tricks you couldn’t do five years ago.

JH  The score is deeply atmospheric and distinctive. How did it come about? 

JA  It’s composed by a close friend of Chloe’s, Andy Cooke. The track at the end is The Daughter of the Minotaur which was written for the film by Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, which we’ll release as a single. There’s also music by Tearist, and I found the gamelan music on youtube, contacted the musicians and they gave us permission. 

JH  Chloe, what’s the significance of the song you sing towards the end? 

CA  Josh asked me to sing something in Spanish and I chose my favourite song from when I was a child in Mexico; it’s about a female revolutionary. My mother told me that once I sang it in my sleep. 

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Female Human Animal, 2018, film still. Courtesy: Josh Appignanes

JH  Josh, how long did the film take to make? 

JA  We shot it in bits over three years, piggybacking on real-life events such as openings and parties and artworld stuff.

CA  We joked we could keep adding scenes as life continued … 

JA  I got to a point where I was editing along the way but there were narrative gaps, so in the end I wrote a standard 90-minute script to pull it all together. 

JH  What or who were your main influences? 

JA  I definitely ripped off Claude Chabrol’s film Les Bonne Femmes (The Good Women, 1960). It’s a portrait of four shop girls in their early 20s and it’s amazing how, in many ways, nothing has changed: they have a sleazy boss and then some sleazy guys take them to this creepy strip club and it’s a classic uncomfortable scene between men and women. The romantic figure in it is like Chloe; she’s looking for something or someone else. The guy she falls for is likethe one played by Marc Hosemann – he’s a clownish, odd, heroic figure, who doesn’t have any dialogue until the very end and, of course, he turns out to be the worst choice of all – it’s a wild film. But I gave myself permission not to worry tonally about the unkemptness of it; I allowed myself to react intuitively to things on the fly. As a result, a lot of it didn’t work; we shot hundreds of hours, most of which we had to let go, but you have to serve the film. 

JH  How was it funded? 

JA  On a wing and a prayer; essentially by friends doing stuff for nothing and two small arts council grants. I’m now quite out of pocket.

JH  I was transfixed by the recurring motif of plastic. Chloe wears a plastic coat, is wrapped in plastic, as is the art. As plastic pollution is one of our contemporary calamities, was it an overt metaphor for you about how messed up our relationship to each other and the environment is?

JA  When I first went to Tate to film Chloe unwrapping Carrington’s paintings, I had never seen dust sheets and they’re beautiful. But, yes, I ended up using plastic as a metaphor that is both about ecology and the patriarchy and gender relations. The question became clear: how can we build on this metaphor?

JJ  Coincidentally, my dad was a plastic’s manufacturer and Carrington’s father made his fortune in new synthetics and she had to escape him … 

JA  Also, when Chloe kicks aside the plastic it’s actually a reference to something she wrote in her novel Book of Clouds(2009). 

JH  The film moves between scenes of quiet profundity and sincerity into a kind of schlock horror, as when the sculpture of the cat becomes an actual cat – it’s an intentionally bad special effect. Is the film partially a homage to filmmakers such as, say, Dario Argento?

JA  I don’t know his work well, but I guess there is something in Female Human Animal about what I know of his sensibility; the shifts in register are a kind of social surrealism. 

JH  ‘Social surrealism’: is that your term?

JA  Yes, I just made it up. But that’s how I experience life, with extreme shifts in register – one minute you’re having a sublime experience and the next it’s rendered ridiculous and then gothic.

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Female Human Animal, 2018, film still. Courtesy: Josh Appignanes

JH  Would you be able to make this film if Carrington was still alive?

CA  Her son saw it and said it was definitely in keeping with her independent spirit.

JH  So, in that sense, it’s a film about friendship …

JA  Absolutely. The only professional actors were the main creepy guy, the agent and the detective. But almost everyone in the film has a connection to Chloe. She knew Marc Hosemannin Berlin – he’s a very well-known stage actor – but this was the first time he’s acted in English.

CA  The first time I saw him was in 2003, my first month living in Berlin. I went to see a four-hour production of Master and Margherita and he was one of Mephistopheles’ incarnations. He crashed about the stage in roller skates – and it was somewhat hysterical. He was so striking and weird and baroque and then I saw him later at a club all dressed in white.

JA  He’s a natural comedian in the role of a ruined man but he is also able to access an intense, sinister register.

JH  He’s attractive and repulsive all in one.

JA  Well, that’s what I think about men and myself and the male gaze. I don’t want to label the film ‘queer cinema’ but it is indebted to cult movie-making where excess and pathology and so on is historically associated with marginal sexualities. Chloe and the character she’s obsessed with are not ‘others’; they’re white heterosexual people trying to get it on. But #metoo was in the ether and I wanted to show a sinister side to heterosexuality as opposed to the non-normative, which in the film is all completely fine.  

JJ  When we were making the film, it got me thinking about the films I like, such as Andy Warhol and Paul Morrissey’s films and the queer German filmmaker Rosa von Praunheim. His films also sit somewhere between documentary and fiction and they’re full of semi-improvised scenes and dialogue and that to me is a fundamental characteristic of a lot of underground and queer cinema. The film also excited me on the level that the bedrock of its plot is the dark side of heterosexuality. 

JA  Perhaps a queering of heterosexuality is what’s needed now.

Female Human Animal premiered at Sheffield DOC/FEST earlier this year. It will have its London premiere at Curzon Soho on 3 October, followed by a discussion with Josh Appignanesi, Chloe Aridjis and Sarah Dunant. Further screenings across the UK through October and November at: femalehumananimal.com

Main image: Female Human Animal, 2018, film still. Courtesy: Josh Appignanes

Jennifer Higgie is the editorial director of frieze.

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