Visual artist Ann Oren’s strange and invigorating feature film debut “Piaffe” cannot be easily described – for one thing, the main character grows a ponytail. But it rewards the attention of a dedicated voyeur, which all real cineastes and many of our best provocateurs are anyway. The narrow-minded and humorless need not bother. Invariably more welcome (one can imagine Oren thinking) are those who enjoy opening their senses and perspectives while having their head thoroughly scratched.
Although this film is set in Berlin, the actual setting is a shy young woman’s expanded view of her world and herself. The power of films to reveal, excite and mystify also concerns Oren greatly, especially the eccentric, transformative ones Foley artist discipline: sound engineers who transform everyday objects into a new acoustic reality. It’s a task that this film’s protagonist, Eva (Simone Bucio), unexpectedly finds herself thrown into when her sister Zara (non-binary artist Simon(e) Jaikiriuma Paetau) is suddenly hospitalized, leaving her makeshift studio unused and is filming a drug commercial that needs to be completed immediately.
The drug company’s product, an equine-inspired mood stabilizer called Equili, is sold with recordings of a dressage horse in various emotional states. Eva’s job is to smile at a film shot in a sawdust-strewn barn depicting piaffe: a graceful, lively trot in place. She tries heels on rocks, boots on sand, hits on a boxing glove and a necklace in the mouth to hear the clack of a horse’s bit. But when the commercial’s director throws out her work with the words “A machine did this,” she sets off on a journey of observation and experience, touching horses at an equestrian center, watching girls do it on a tram They stroke each other’s long hair, and the pounding of hooves mimics a pulsating nightclub. As if ready to be her own side effects, a dark hairy ponytail begins to grow from her lower back.
In the fantastical realm of “Piaffe,” which Oren co-wrote with Thais Guisasola, lies a cheeky nod to the horse’s importance to film history, but also to the isolating purgatory that Foley artists are known to sometimes experience. Sure, photographer Eadweard Muybridge pioneered moving images as a way to learn how horses gallop (an experiment also referenced in Jordan Peele’s cinematic “Nope”). Why can’t Eva’s exploratory journey into sound effects in horses manifest a new, female-driven, cross-species consciousness?
Of course, Eva becomes more confident when it comes to noises. The limits of pleasure and role-playing are also explored when an emboldened Eva engages in a submissive, unbridled (if somewhat restrained) intimacy with an earnest botanist (Sebastian Rudolph). Excited about hybridization—Oren dramatizes his observation of fronds as if it were a peep show—his idea of foreplay speaks to the complex hermaphrodite sexuality of ferns. As for the erotic appeal of her cock in this scenario, one can only say: various strokes?
Their success may vary with the BDSM eroticism in “Piaffe,” but their fluidity and consensuality is assured and well-supported by both Bucio’s seductive performance and Oren’s direction, which imbues the entire film with sensory curiosity, as if it were important to understand yourself. Discover, move through life and appreciate its tensions. You feel it in the rich foreground of the discreet sound – whether in the studio or in the world – and the vibrant primary colors, fleshy grain and glide of Carlos Vasquez’s exquisite 16mm cinematography, reminiscent of Jacques Rivette at his most elegant and unconventional remind.
While Oren explores themes of gender, sexual positivity, mental health, and non-normativity (and yes, animal welfare too), “Piaffe” doesn’t feel like a medical manifesto. It is a horse of a different color, but pleasant and playful. Oren’s tongue-in-cheek playfulness is refreshing but also elemental. The occasional flickering of exposure and pops of the soundtrack remind us that this is a film, but also that we are observing what is raw and possible in art and in life, and that it is good to be open to it , wherever images and sounds take us.
In German and English, with English subtitles
Duration: 1 hour, 26 minutes
Play: Nuart Landmark, West Los Angeles