Hiss and crackle: The Beauty of the Obsolete

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A Review of Josh Appignanesi’s FEMALE HUMAN ANIMAL Review by Brad AveryJosh Appignanesi’s Female Human Animal is a disarming, surreal, and often terrifying docudrama that seamlessly blends the day-to-day mundanities of the art world with a Hitchcockian subplot of stalkers and killers. The film is co-written by and stars novelist Chloe Aridjis (Book of Clouds, Asunder) as a semi-fictionalized version of herself while she curates a retrospective of surrealist painter Leonora Carrington. Appignanesi cuts together documentary footage of Aridjis developing the gallery and conducting author interviews at book launches with a dreamlike fictional subplot about a mysterious man who follows her through the halls of the Tate Liverpool museum.

Female Human Animal’s clinical title may come across, in a sense, as dehumanizing as the film becomes an observational look at Aridjis’ psyche from feminist deconstructions of gender to psychosexual fantasies and traumas. Writing an introduction for the movie in MUBI Notebook, Appignanesi asked “what if the most interesting, dramatic, liminal, hallucinatory part of someone—the bit about them you find most compelling — is their inner life? How do you record the invisible interior with a camera?”

Shot entirely on VHS tape, Female Human Animal vibrates with the crackle and hiss of an obsolete medium — an extra lens that grounds the action on screen in a state of unreality. Documentary sections, such as Aridjis’ interview with author Juliet Jacques during the release of her book Trans: A Memoir, become unclear blurs of acting and authenticity as she takes on the role of herself.

Receiving a brief festival run last year, the film is currently available to stream exclusively on MUBI, a niche streaming service pitched toward cinephiles with an ever rotating library. By sheer coincidence, on the day I sat down to write this review MUBI’s new film of the day happened to be the exact film I was most reminded of while watching Female Human Animal: Ana Asensio’s woefully underseen Most Beautiful Island. Premiered at the 2017 South By Southwest Film Festival and given a limited release later that year Asensio’s directorial debut (which she also wrote and stars in) is a similarly dark and suspenseful thriller about a lonesome woman navigating a dark, labyrinthine world. In it, she plays Luciana, an undocumented immigrant in New York City working against the clock to raise enough money to pay her overdue rent. A friend tells her about a “modeling gig” which leads her blind into a dark basement where women stand silently, waiting to be selected by handlers while screams come from a locked room. I won’t spoil what’s behind the door, but let’s just say be aware if you’re afraid of spiders.

What both Female Human Animal and Most Beautiful Island do so well is communicating the existential fear and darkness of the interior lives of their protagonists and the uniquely gendered experiences as dangerous men lurk in shadows. The women on screen are the primary creative voices behind their respective films, and each depict variations of their own anxieties, utilizing the tropes of the thriller and horror genres to deliver impactful feminist statements on the pulse of the zeitgeist in the #MeToo era.

Each film is also pleasantly short. Despite deliberate pacing, both works build into powerful emotional climaxes before you can check the clock — Female Human Animal at 74 minutes and Most Beautiful Island at a flat 80. You could double feature both of them in the time it would take to watch your standard blockbuster — and I recommend you do!

Female Human Animal is available to stream for another two weeks on MUBI and will be available later this year on BFI Player. Most Beautiful Island will be available on MUBI for the next four weeks and is also available on most Video On Demand platforms.




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About Author

Brad Avery is a Boston-based writer and journalist whose film analysis has appeared in Vanyaland and Brattle Theatre Film Notes. You can follow him on Letterboxd.

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