When singled-out within a purely visual medium, sound becomes intrinsically linked to the theme of obsession: a mystery the eyes can’t see that the protagonist needs to solve. From John Travolta’s Jack Terry unwittingly stumbling into a murder conspiracy when recording foley effects for a slasher flick in Brian De Palma’s Blow Out to Tilda Swinton’s Jessica trying to find the source for the “rumble” that haunts her every waking moment in Memoria, the inability to define a sound’s origin becomes a gripping enigma within a medium that thrives on showing, not telling. Much like De Palma’s film, the latest from visual artist Ann Oren takes as its starting point a recording studio––albeit a makeshift one, set up solely to record the sound effects for a bizarre TV commercial––but follows a much less conventional path to untangle an artist’s growing fixation on the noises they have stumbled into capturing.
Eva (Simone Bucio) finds herself thrown into the less-than-glamorous work of TV post-production after her sibling (portrayed by non-binary performer Simon(è) Jaikiriuma Paetau) suffers a nervous breakdown, suddenly facing the inexplicable task of handling foley work for a drug commercial just days from deadline without anything in the way of prior experience. The advert itself suggests a more subdued Adult Swim short, an initially soothing anti-depressant promo where the calming voiceover eventually begins to list a laundry list of increasingly harmful side effects, all set to the visual metaphor of a horse roaming its stable. When Eva’s ill-timed sound effects––e.g. ever-so-slightly out of sync gallops––are added to the mix, it becomes uncomfortable in a way that’s hard to precisely define, the uncanniness seeming to affect the wider movie as a whole.
As the project is torn to shreds by the producer (who, in one of the broader visual gags, is one of many company suits with matching blonde bowl cuts), the very form of the film becomes infected by the inability to record naturalistic sound; that same producer opening a packet of chips, for example, becomes a more easily identifiable snippet of foley work than it would before. The most mundane of movements are rendered uncanny after an audience’s perception of the intersection between sound and visuals is toyed with in the most minor way.
Does this make Piaffe‘s shift into overt dark fantasy––a broad metaphor for the obsession that becomes intrinsic to succeeding in any creative endeavor––less satisfying in light of how it subtly plays with form during this attention-grabbing opening stretch? Ever so slightly, but Oren’s film takes such delight in its off-kilter approach that it wasn’t hard for me to remain compelled. Told that she needs to go and study animals if she wants to succeed in this profession, Eva tracks down the horse from the commercial and visits its stable. Shortly afterwards she starts growing a tail of her own and becomes not just empowered within this new, unlikely profession, but is able to shed an introverted persona; the very act of living and breathing her art, of attempting to experience the world through her subject’s eyes, helps her find––if not herself––a new, sexually emboldened persona which she can inhabit with an unexpected ease.
While horny humanoid horseplay may sound like nothing more than an over-the-top conceit designed to get any indie-film eyeballs on a festival circuit oversaturated with high-concept affairs, there’s substance in how Oren utilizes an unusual eroticism with no cynical shock value in sight. Developing a relationship with Sebastian Rudolph’s botanist, the movie expands its creative metaphor to explore how kink and sexuality are equally intrinsic to an artist’s identity––though here the allegory ends in favor of straightforward depiction, the director instead devoting much of Piaffe‘s second half to this entanglement, including a scene of auto-erotic asphyxiation by tail that is much less ridiculous and sensationalist in practice than it is written down on paper.
There’s a good argument to be made that the best sex scenes aren’t necessarily the most titillating––rather the ones that do the best job convincing an audience how the characters themselves are turned on by it. (An increasingly difficult job when sexuality is now often depicted with a clinical lens, if it’s even touched upon at all.) In this regard there’s a strange allure to these scenes. I was reminded of Roger Ebert describing David Cronenberg’s Crash as being akin to a “porno from another dimension” in that it’s a work of supercharged steaminess that acts to challenge conventional understandings of human sexuality, unbothered by how discomforting this may be to its audience.
But as the film pivots from being an invigorating tale of obsession into what is, oddly, a more conventional sexual coming-of-age tale (yes, even with the horse tail and everything), I can’t pretend I was fully satisfied even as my attention was constantly held. Piaffe is an enrapturing, ultimately inconsistent work where two halves that challenge in different ways don’t entirely add to an effective whole. Yet the journey itself more than compensates for where it eventually lands.
Piaffe opens on August 25.