Using sci-fi to create a sexual allegory is a staple of body horror genre, just ask David Cronenberg. Now, let us introduce the body pleasure genre. No, not porn, but a character-driven drama in which personal and sexual growth synthesise in the name of erotic cinema. Visual artist Ann Oren’s debut feature “Piaffe” fits this exact mold, following a meek introvert in Berlin who grows a horse’s tail and has a sexual awakening. Oren’s teasing style is the perfect route into the story. Shooting on 16mm, she mounts every scene by slowly, surely feeding in key details. In other words: she has a gift for both horseplay and foreplay.
Eva (Simone Bucio) is tasked with sound designing a commercial for a dubious mood-stabilizing drug after sister, Zara (the non-binary artist, Simon(e) Jaikiriuma Paetau), is hospitalized in mysterious circumstances. The pharmaceutical company behind the drug “Equili” has elected to riff on its name in the form of a horse-riding concept. So, one stressful morning, Eva finds herself in a make-shift foley studio rhythmically beating coconut halves in a sandbox in sync with the image on screen of a horse trotting through sawdust. As in Peter Strickland’s “Berberian Sound Studio,” a fitting level of relishful attention is paid to the sound design, so that these sounds and the creativity used to counterfeit them are heightened and delicious.
Eva’s first try is met with abuse by her new boss, a tyrant in a platinum, bowl-cut wig, that makes him look like Andy Warhol crossbred with Ralphie from “The Sopranos.” “A machine made this. I need a human,” is his final analysis so she is sent on her way to become more human, or at least to understand what that sounds like. Eva goes to visit Zara in hospital, and is denied entry by a nurse with the bedside manner of Nurse Ratched, who takes smirking pleasure in turning her away, but not before giving her one of Zara’s possessions.
The narrative question of what happened to Zara is given equal weight to the texture of each moment. When Eva rifles through a brown paper bag, the crackling sound hits like ASMR, as she pulls out a silver and black watch smeared with blood. Oren’s stripes as a visual artist pay off time and again as she draws us into a world that is very much like our own, only heightened in the manner of rapt arousal or animal instinct.
Oren seeds sensual discovery like Chekhov seeded that gun. On a visit to a stable, Eva rubs a horse’s harness and the bit clanks under her touch. Later, at home in the studio, she puts a gold chain in her mouth, moving it around with her teeth to replicate that metallic sound. Oren cuts from all this private experimentation to a shot of Eva’s dirty sneakers and knee socks dancing on the spot at a blue-lit Techno night (this is Berlin, after all). Anxious to get the attention of the barmaid, Eva pounds the bar, smashing a glass, drawing her own blood. The barmaid responds with a grin, a licked cut and a free shot. The barmaid is the third person to receive Eva in a wolfish manner. She is framed as a lost lamb amidst liberated sadists who taunt her with their relative ease.
The horse’s tail emerges with gradual violence, like everything in “Piaffe,” appearing, at first, as lump on her coccyx. This becomes a stumpy pig-like tail and then a lustrous long black tail, that she leaves elegantly untucked from her trousers. The actress Simone Bucio was last seen in Amat Escalante’s “The Untamed” making love to an octopus, and it is appreciable why she is cornering this niche as she brings a plausible energy to otherwise high-camp scenarios. Bucio is an Isabelle Adjani for our times: all livewire physicality and wide-eyed reactions.
The narrative lags at the end of the first act, before galloping into full-throttled playful strangeness. It’s not long before an alluring botonist (Sebastian Rudolph) is talking dirty to Eva by describing the sexual characteristics of ferns before auto-erotically aspyxiating her with her own tail. (These are words I never thought I would type.) It is a testament to Oren’s skill for atmosphere that this scene is genuinely arousing.
“Piaffe” is a celebration of kink, queerness, and the pleasures of unfurling like a fern into your final form. On the note of these ferns, Dr. Novak the alluring botanist, tells Eva, “Our concepts of male and female are insufficient to understand ferns,” explaining that when they are gametophytes, ferns produce both sperm and eggs. As Zara is non-binary, this breaking news about ferns reframes them as a force of nature; albeit one grounded by the pharmaceutical industry.
“Piaffe” plants seeds on a rich seam of subjects — from gender and sexuality, to nature and control — without synthesising them in an easy-to-read ending. It is the kind of film that demands to be seen and written about by a wide variety of people, for it is unlikely that any two people will come away feeling like they watched the same picture.
What is unequivocally impressive is the intentionality Oren displays over pacing, tone, and detail. Each prop selected and each color used lands with deliberate affect, from the midnight blue riding shirt a newly confident Eva wears as she looks at herself in a dusty mirror, to the carmine roses that match her lips in hue and her tail in bloom. Nothing is phoned in here, everything is calibrated to a unique frequency so that even though you can trace the influence of Bette Gordon, Catherine Breillat, and Lucille Hadzhihalillovic, “Piaffe” is its own playful and majestic beast.
“Piaffe” premiered at the 2022 Locarno Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.