Sabina Stent recommends Josh Appignanesi’s experimental film Female Human Animal as a fitting homage to Surrealist Leonora Carrington’s work

At the beginning of Female Human Animal the film’s protagonist, writer Chloe Aridjis, who first met the great artist and writer Leonora Carrington in early 1990s Mexico City through her family doctor, describes her late friend to an off-camera interviewer:

She didn’t accept the world she was given as a woman. She didn’t accept the world as it superficially appeared. I guess I too have been drawn to a sense of an enchanted world; something beyond our everyday reality and I suppose even people who seemed to offer something radically different.

Filmed on antique video (specifically, 1986 AG-450 VHS camera), Female Human Animal is part documentary, part fevered dream; a haunting, at times psycho-sexual, thrilling journey transgressing internal and external worlds. Based on a conversation between Aridjis and the film’s director Josh Appignanesi, the film follows Aridjis as she guest curates Tate Liverpool’s Carrington retrospective in 2015, circling around a chance encounter she experiences during this period of her life.

The film opens at the beginning of the exhibition, with the reveal of Carrington’s 1953 work ‘And Then We Saw the Daughter of the Minotaur’. The mythological creature, a favourite of the Surrealists, is painted in an autobiographical depiction of otherworldly domesticity. In art and life Carrington was a seer, capable of transcending worlds and places through her creativity. As the camera closes in on the seer’s face and we stare into their eyes, we understand that we too are about to embark on an unearthly adventure.

The focus on and repetition of certain paintings, including ‘The Giantess (The Guardian of the Egg)’ (1947), ‘Queria ser pajaro’ (1960) and ‘Minotaur’, are almost re-enacted, or alluded to, in moments of Aridjis’ everyday life. One example is Carrington’s close connection to the animal spirits and her great affection and affinity for animals, especially cats. Aridjis’ cat, Ludwig, while being an enigmatic co-star, reminds us of the mysticism the artist believed animals possessed, and, fundamentally, of their innate freedom. Ludwig serves as an intermediary between worlds: those we can see — those on the canvas — and those in our imagination. As Aridjis says of Carrington during an event at the London Review Bookshop: “She always identified with feral spirits and animals. And she didn’t ever want to be confined. Female, human, animal — and not always in that order.”

Carrington’s presence is never off the screen, and the bonds between both women are prevalent throughout. However, in spite of Aridjis’ professional and personal involvement with her late friend and the seeming abandonment of the present for something more interior and supernatural, she never relinquishes her sense of autonomy: steered by her friend’s presence rather than controlled or possessed. It aligns with the footage of Carrington taken in 2011, shortly before she died, by cousin and biographer Joanna Moorhead, where she tells her companion and the camera: “You have to own your soul for as long as it’s possible to own a soul or you let your soul own you. And to hand it over to some half-arsed male … I wouldn’t recommend it.”

Carrington may have been associated with the Surrealists but she was never defined by the movement; she created art that was very much her own

I would say ‘haunting’ is most appropriate as a description of the relationship between these two women: Aridjis senses Carrington, lets her friend lead the way, yet is still present enough to retain her own autonomy. This is evident when she meets and follows a mysterious man (Marc Hosemann), whose name we never learn. The scene plays out as a variant of hide and seek, or cat and mouse, and it is not quite clear who is the hunter and who the hunted. The pair have an instant, unusual rapport — an otherworldly, mysterious chemistry — and there is a vague familiarity about him. He says he is a time-traveller: a fitting description as he more than embodies Max Ernst, the love of Leonora’s life. Their rendezvous in London exhilarates Aridjis whose preoccupation with writer’s block has her retreating into herself. During their date, we see a moment of release, of freedom, yet a sinister act has us pondering his existence. Is he a figment of her imagination, a character to be written in her book? Aridjis appears to abide by her description of Carrington, telling an enchanted audience at the London Review Bookshop how the latter was “influenced by her times but not determined by them. Influenced by the men in her life but not determined by them. She always remained her own person.”

If Female Human Animal is intended as a treatise on Carrington as a woman whose life and work refused to be defined by categorisation, it is only fitting that the film itself cannot be neatly boxed away into one particular category. It is both nostalgic and avant garde, documentary and fiction — it could almost be lifted from one of Carrington’s short stories — providing an effective balance between ‘reality’ and Aridjis’ internal world. This is further enhanced by Andy Cooke, Yasmine Kittles and O.M.D.’s original soundtrack and, as the music’s speed increases in moments of turmoil and panic, they provide frenetic bursts of energy verging on the visceral. It reminds me of Aridjis’ earlier comment to an off-camera interviewer as she curates the exhibition at Tate Liverpool: “She was the sort of woman who never wanted to feel confined. So that did feed into her paintings.”

Carrington may have been associated with the Surrealists but she was never defined by the movement; she created art that was very much her own. This appears to be the film’s message as it breaks open a genre and emerges as something new. It is something that we cannot overthink, we should just let it happen. This is best described by Carrington herself in another scene towards the end of her life. In a noisy, crowded restaurant in Mexico City, the older artist, with the resoluteness of her younger self still very much in her eyes, firmly delivers the following potent message: “You’re trying, desperately, to intellectualise me. And you’re wasting your time.”

If you are intrigued, FHL premieres on 3 October at Curzon Soho in London and then is screening across the UK in October and November. It will be also streaming on MUBI. All listings on the website.

All images courtesy of Minotaur Film Ltd.
Images description:
1. A woman with dark hair (Chloe Aridjis) is posing, showing the viewer her left profile, in front of Leonora Carrington’s painting ‘And Then We Saw the Daughter of the Minotaur’ hanging on the wall behind her.
2. A woman with dark hair (Chloe Aridjis) is looking up at the man towering over her, to the right of the frame, his image blurred. They are standing next to the window with red Red Bull neon reflected in the glass.
3. A blurred double mirror portrait of a woman with long wavy dark hair (Chloe Aridjis), with intense facial expression as if she was scared, angry or determined.

Sabina Stent is a freelance writer, lecturer and sporadic blogger, specialising in women Surrealists. She lives in Birmingham and regularly lectures at public events, academic conferences and universities around the country. She is especially interested in “art witches”: the relationship between creative women, the avant garde, art and magic. Sabina worships cats, loves everything about Old Hollywood (movies and the era’s stars), reads comics about women and witches and is also interested in the representations of female superheroes in comic books and their cinematic adaptations