You Must Open Yourself Up to the Film: Our Review of ‘Piaffe’

Posted in Theatrical by - August 25, 2023
You Must Open Yourself Up to the Film: Our Review of ‘Piaffe’

Sex sells in cinema, right? It did for most of cinema’s history, and probably still does if we’re being honest. You’d never believe it though. Consider the fact that Film X (formerly known as Film Twitter) feels compelled to engage in a bimonthly relitigating of the “are sex scenes necessary” debate. They were and are; they will continue to be so. So long as sex is a facet of the human existence.

Sex is crucial to understanding not only present cinema, but also historical cinema. Early films were seen as carnival attractions; literally, a cinema of attractions fostered by the Lumiere brothers and others. This eventually extended to peep-shows and other such early and primitive forms of pornography. From its inception, film is as intrinsically connected to sex as it is to its depictions of reality.

Thus, a film like Ann Oren’s Piaffe opens on a series of images including a set of binoculars (meant to represent the spectator) and the innerworkings of an old-fashioned slide projector (meant to represent the apparatus). And what that happens, what proceeds is a deep – and frankly at times uncomfortable – exploration of sexuality and the discovery of it. When that comes, you’re morally required to discuss concepts that you normally wouldn’t for most films. The place of film in history is one important consideration, but here, theory is another. I consider Gillian Wallace Horvath’s I Blame Society to be the most Metzian film of the decade thus far, but Piaffe is a strong contender in that regard.

Largely, this is predicated on the nature of the work that female protagonist Eva (Simone Bucio) does. As a commercial foley artist, one of Eva’s gigs is to recreate the sound of a horse for an antidepressant commercial. The previous artist, Zara’s (Simon(e) Jaikiriuma Paetau), nervous breakdown has placed Eva here, but she’s not having any more success than they were. Their demanding boss seemingly has both no idea what they want and the highest possible standards.

In making Eva a foley artist, Oren aligns herself with Metz. Christian Metz is one of the most influential film theorists of the 20th Century. And while I don’t profess to have a brilliant understanding of his work, I’ve got enough to understand why Piaffe does what it does. Metz’s theory was part of a school of thought some know as “apparatus theory”. This primarily concerned itself with considering why cinema drew people. Metz opined that cinema offered a form of identification for the audience. But this identification was less with the characters on the screen than with the camera itself. We understand the codes (techniques) that the film produces. And that informs our understanding of the text based on our own experiences and understandings of the world.


What makes Metz’s thinking beautiful is that it aligns with a belief that I have regarding cinema: you have to open yourself up to the film to understand it. Cinema is a two-street; it requires both the participation of audience and filmmaker. Metz routinely is criticized for misreadings that suggest his work believes we’re passive spectators simply letting the film wash over us. He’s not stupid. While some may want that, that is never really the case. If you really want to understand why you feel the way you do about a film, consider what are the questions that you’re asking during your viewing.

Thus, whenever you see a camera, or a soundboard, or the filmmaking process, the question you should ask yourself is “why does the filmmaker want me to think about how I am identifying with the film?” To answer this question for Piaffe is difficult, but tantalizing. You have to open yourself up to the film do so.

I can imagine that there are a number people who will see Piaffe and desperately wish that they could approach this from the perspective of a completely passive viewer. You have to open yourself up to the film, but I know that is going to be difficult for many with this one. Their loss really. Eva gains further intellectual investment in the reproduction of sound (a choice that harkens towards films such as The Conversation and Blow Out). When this happens, she begins to sexually take on the characteristics of a horse.

Piaffe doesn’t actually open on Eva, but rather opens on Novak (Sebastian Rudolph). He’s a professor of fernology who is particularly interested in the methods that flowers reproduce. They begin to have a sexual relationship that is definitely uncomfortable at times. Yet, it is also crucial to the film. In doing so, the film slightly shifts the central question imposed by the apparatus: why are you uncomfortable with this? What would make you more comfortable? Why?

If you couldn’t tell, I love films that force me to answer questions like this throughout their run time. I have less time for films which suture the viewer into their narratives, which Piaffe most certainly does not. I am also a sucker for films with gorgeous, shot-on-celluloid cinematography. Cinematographer Carlos Vasquez gorgeously renders Eva’s world in a stark, nostalgic colour. These colours invoke films such as The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant. Once again, the choice of 16mm is deliberate. That material invokes the cinema of the past in another reflection of the impact of the apparatus on the text.

If you’re going to go the direction that Oren does, it pays to have a meticulous understanding of film grammar. Strictly speaking, everything in Piaffe is on point. There’s not a wasted frame in this film. Nor is there a wasted sound. So much of the film predicates on Eva’s attempt to build a sound capable of mimicking a horse, that the film necessitates a strong understanding of that sound design as well. Thankfully, it has that in spades.

The unsung hero of Piaffe is Bucio, who brings a demure quality that is sorely needed. Eva’s introverted nature means she must routinely react to what is happening around here, and yet, she must turn on the performance when required. It’s a devilishly tricky balancing act, but it’s one that the new actress manages to somehow pull off. In essence, she has to do what we the audience must: open herself up the film. It bears repeating, but you will not be able to experience this film as you need to otherwise. Those who will, will have experienced something special.

This post was written by
Thomas Wishloff is currently an MA student at York University. He is new to the Toronto Film Scene, but has periodically written and podcasted for several now defunct ventures, and has probably commented on a forum with you at some point. The ex-Edmontonian has been known to enjoy a good board game, and claims to know the secret to the best popcorn in the world.
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