I’ve been meaning to write a few blogs recently, and am only now getting around to it. But I did want to write a couple of brief thoughts about Josh Appignanesi’s Female Human Animal, mainly in light of its treatment of plastic.
The film tells the story of Chloe (Chloe Aridjis), who is a writer and curator who is helping to organise a retrospective of the relatively forgotten surrealist painter Leonora Carrington at Tate Liverpool.
As the film progresses, however, we begin also to see develop Chloe’s relationship with a German/Austrian man (Marc Hosemann), who is kind of stalking her – although she may also be stalking him… and in such a way that we begin to be uncertain about what is real and what is not.
The film is rich in symbolism, especially through its use of animals, including a tarantula that at one point appears… while also being something of a contemplation of what it means to be single and/or not a mother at an age that many would consider to be suitable for bearing children (I do not share this view, but I express it as a view that a good number of people share, supposedly with biology to support them – and I say ‘supposedly’ not because I think that biology is wrong, but because each human’s biology is different and perhaps not even determined on a personal, let alone on a species, level).
Indeed, at one point, we see Chloe on a stage in a club where suddenly she has to perform on a microphone. Behind the stage the word moth is written in large letters. To make a pun of the sort that psychoanalysis loves, to be a mother is to be more than a moth… and so while not a biological mother, perhaps Chloe is herself the moth (moth, not moth-er)… on stage and under scrutiny like moths pinned to a board by an entomologist for study and display.
The surrealism of the film (what is real? what not?) is exacerbated by some interesting moments that push language to its limits. In games of the ilk played in his work by Eugene Ionesco, characters repeat words over an over again (‘perhaps,’ ‘so’), lending to Female Human Animal an oneiric/dream-like quality that makes a mockery of language and thus takes us into the realm of the inexpressible… perhaps taking us closer to what it is like to be Chloe, while also recalling the influence of Carrington.
But this evasion or twisting of language is also reflected in the fabric of the film itself. For Female Human Animal is also shot on videotape as opposed to on polyester or even digital memory cards. In this way, the film as a whole defies film, exploiting instead a supposedly ‘obsolescent’ material that is reworked to create something remarkable (much as Chloe herself is, as Kinneret Lahad might put it, ‘still single’ – and thus ‘obsolete,’ but also highly creative).
And this brings me to the insistent use of plastic in the film. For on numerous occasions we see sheets of transparent plastic filling sections or all of the screen, including when Chloe first meets the man, as well as in a sequence where Chloe herself wears a transparent plastic Mac.
Indeed, the film ends with images of plastic production at a factory – images that seem otherwise disconnected from the surrealist narrative that has preceded them.
What to make of such a motif?
Well, in part it reminds us of the plastic nature of the contemporary world: synthetic products are filling our lands and our seas, as well as surely creeping into our bodies and blood streams via micro plastics and other materials that may well end up choking us, as if plastic were itself some sort of alien intelligence slowly invading and overtaking our planet. The sort of idea that Reza Negarestani might have.
The plastic sheets on the screen literally distort our vision of what lies beyond them, thus bringing into question the validity of our vision. That is, plastic has changed the way that we see the world, with humans beginning to take plastic as natural when in fact it is not (with plastic thus proving that our world is in a certain sense plastic, in that its form and our perspective of it is not fixed, but rather malleable).
What is more, they also help us not to understand what is real or otherwise.
Plastic sheets and other cauls have also been used to distorting and disturbing effect in Francis Ford Coppola’s classic, The Conversation (USA, 1974), which tells the story of, er, Harry Caul (Gene Hackman), who in short aspires to a position of omniscience regarding a murder mystery that befalls him, and who ends up going mad because he cannot achieve his desired position of total knowledge (frankly, who can?).
At one point in that film, we see blood across a white sheet on the screen – and the blood seems to signify how Harry is projecting the murder on to the white screen. This in turn makes us think about what cinema itself is, namely images projected on to a white screen, and which thus are not real, but which our imagination often confuses with reality (we find reality boring if it is not cinematic).
Now, the reason for mentioning The Conversation is because the use of the plastic sheet in Female Human Animal seems to be doing something similar – except that rather than depicting a white sheet that recalls the cinema screen, we see transparent plastic sheets that remind us that film itself (be that polyester or videotape) is a plastic.
Indeed, if you enter ‘film’ as a search term in Google Scholar, the first things listed are not studies of cinema but typically studies of plastics and surfaces. For, plastic is a film as film is plastic. And plastic is all surface. Whither depth in the era of plastic? Perhaps even whither plastic in the era of data?
In other words, Female Human Animal seems to be in part a sophisticated study of how human perception only allows us access to the surface of things, while also being a self-conscious exploration of cinema and video as plastic media that also can only ever explore surfaces. What lies beneath? And how to get beneath?
And yet, where Coppola uses a white sheet (and distorting windows) to suggest that cinema is perhaps like human perception a projection as much as it is a reception of information from the outside world, Appignanesi in his film oddly pushes further by insisting on the transparency of the plastic film.
In being able to see through it, with the distortions often only very subtle, Female Human Animal does a delicate and artful job rendering almost invisible the distinction between dream and reality – while also giving us pause to consider how media themselves might be films that get between us and reality, giving us a sense of separation and detachment from that reality, making it hard for us to know what is real, making us feel alienated, because these films are alien intelligences here perhaps to kill us, or at the very least to destroy the current logocentric and patriarchal order (as per the film’s exploration of a female psyche that is at odds with and which ultimately kills that phallic order, even if that phallic order is itself surrealistically weird – if it is real and more than an illusion at all).
In this way, Female Human Animal is a kind of anti-cinematic (or what I might term non-cinematic) piece that uses non-film to make a film that is very much about film and the filmic nature of the contemporary world.