Locarno 2022 review: Piaffe (Ann Oren)

“Disquieting but deeply compelling, Piaffe challenges the status quo in a way that is truly unforgettable.”

It is certainly very difficult to even begin describing Piaffe, the fascinating existential drama written and directed by Ann Oren, who is making her feature-length directorial debut after a critically acclaimed run of short films and other experiments within the visual medium. The film, which focuses on a young foley artist who finds her work encroaching on her personal life in unexpected ways, is a strange but captivating exploration of a number of prominent themes, each one delivered with a kind of striking nuance that is difficult to put into words. This is especially true in how Piaffe has very sparse dialogue (and what is present in the film is often inconsequential, part of the dizzying cacophony of sounds designed to disorient us), and the plot details are difficult to discern. Yet, it is in this ability to challenge conventions that we find Oren and her team grappling with the boundaries of absurdism without ever going too far, which clearly demonstrates how she is one of the most exciting young voices in contemporary experimental cinema, and someone whose perspective, while unconventional, is absolutely essential. This is especially true as cinema continues to reconfigure the fundamentals of what can be portrayed on screen, as well as the power of something as simple as a single image or stray sound, which we find can be fertile ground for the most fascinating of stories.

Piaffe is undeniably a film that can be seen as impenetrable at first – the narrative is not presented to us neatly, being intentionally jagged for the sake of working against conventions, which is the primary method taken by Oren in constructing this film. We do come to realize this is a film that will be driven by sound more than anything else, both in how the narrative focuses on a woman working as a foley artist, and in how much emphasis the director places on every sound, whether foregrounded or peripheral to any particular scene. We are presented with a discordant aural landscape, one in which we encounter sounds that are almost too uncanny to be entirely human – and considering where the plot eventually ventures, this is perfectly appropriate. Several artists have worked laboriously to prove that entire worlds can be built from only sounds (not necessarily spoken words or music, but rather those small sounds that are part of everyday life, but rarely noticed), with the ultimate intention here being to explore the fact that what we hear indelibly influences our perception, and that a single, stagnant image can say so much. This innovative sound design works in conjunction with the visuals (with the gorgeous 16mm photography evoking a distant past in the history of cinema), and the recurring motifs that prove that repetition can be a powerful tool in creative unease, as the non-linear, cyclical narrative is well-maintained under the inventive guidance of a director with a very precise vision.

While it may take some time to reach it, there is a plot underlying the film, with Piaffe being as much about playing on all of our senses as it is forcing us into questioning the nature of humanity as a whole. This is a film deeply steeped in existential anguish, and a lot of the story is developed around the main character’s growing disillusionment with the world around her, which manifests in a way that could be viewed as either a literal example of absurdism, or a metaphorical allegory for something much deeper (and which should be seen first-hand, being one of the most genuinely shocking surprises in a film from the past year). The very literal humanity of the protagonist is a central issue at the heart of the film, and much credit needs to be given to Simone Bucio, whose spirited performance anchors the film. Not too many actors would be capable of handling such challenging material (especially in a role that lacks the crucial element of prominent dialogue, which is often used as a crutch for younger actors), but Bucio commits entirely to the film, which is considerably influenced by this forthright dedication and willingness to surrender to the director’s unorthodox techniques in telling this story. Piaffe is a character-driven film, even at its most abstract, so it was vital that the development of the character was just as strong as the more experimental elements that surrounded her, with Bucio becoming intertwined with many of the more intangible concepts, creating a performance that is simultaneously alluring and terrifying, which ultimately works in favour of the film and its unconventional view of the human condition.

Piaffe contains what could be described as a sensible kind of surrealism, insofar as there is an abundance of abstraction that went into the film’s creation, and Oren spares very little expense in realizing her vision on the well-defined terms she establishes from the first moments. However, rather than simply putting together a series of off-kilter moments and labelling it as postmodern, the film does something quite different, instead showing that it is not afraid to be abstract, but demonstrates a keen amount of restraint in the moments where it decides to veer off in unexpected directions, which is almost immediately contrasted with more grounded moments. This creates a continuous oscillation between social realism and absurdism, which gives the film its distinctly unconventional tone. Piaffe is not a film that is going to be seen as accessible or easily understood, but considering the scope of the story, and what the director seemed intent on infusing into every scene, this is barely a hindrance, especially since we find the film is often at its best when it is going against conventions. Disquieting but deeply compelling, Piaffe challenges the status quo in a way that is truly unforgettable.