Through her haptic studies of bodies, Andrea Arnold exposes the power of human desire, both male and female, to reach self-assertion as much as shared erotic satisfaction. Savina Petkova dissects the director’s hypnotic craft in her last two films.
Andrea Arnold can cause sexuality to erupt. The filmmaker makes the bodies of her characters mere puppets for the biddings of passion, to then finely tune them and weave an invisible thread of desire, binding the same powerless bodies to dance in synchronicity. Her “passion for the real” makes the transition from bursting ecstasy to self-contained longing look seamless. Populated by animals, her films offer a metaphoric take on what it means to be human, oscillating between “female” and “animal” in relation to sexuality, bringing animalistic behaviour to the front.
In Fish Tank, a playground becomes a seductive space: a shot/countershot composition reflected in the eyes of protagonist Mia, (performed with rawness by newcomer Katie Jarvis) meets a bare-chested, tattooed all-male audience with the young girls practicing their dance routine to the rhythm of the seductive R&B song “Me and You” by Ciara. Even though the sequence spans out as a fight between Mia and the other girls, a lingering erotic pause takes a grip on the viewer. The lustful teenage (male) gaze does not wear off even when the boys themselves are kept off-screen and the power field is governed by the young girls’ brawl.
In American Honey, Star (Sasha Lane) curiously follows Jake (Shia Labeouf) after witnessing his lure-in dance to Rihanna’s “We Found Love” in a supermarket. They meet in the shop’s parking lot, an empty transient space shrunk to the dimensions of erotically-charged intimacy. By leaving their enticing dialogue off-screen, the frame is saturated with close-ups on biting lips, a blurry shot-reverse-shot of their bodily details: the camera cuts from Star’s feet, tensing and stepping away from Jake, to the bright-coloured floral tattoo on her thigh – teasing the vulnerability of stepping back. Nevertheless, the dynamics of proximity and distance, communicated by the focus on their lips, legs, and feet frames a predator/prey kind of dance, a flirtatious game that builds up sexual tension of both power and exposure, while concealing it at the same time, as the conversation centers around the formality of a job proposition.
From the poster of a charging tiger hanging on Mia’s bedroom door, to the white horse she tries to set free from its chains in a highway trailer park, the imminent presence of animals in Fish Tank rhymes with the obstacles posed by class and gender, within the confines of social housing islands (the film was shot on location in Essex). The allegory of the film’s title alludes to a merciless house-like prison – a mini-aquarium with its panoptic glass walls – its bounding limits shattered only by Mia’s dancing and sexual desires. Fish Tank’s engagement with bodies and movement is amplified by Robbie Ryan’s exquisitely paced cinematography, which lets images breathe, through gentle zooms and dreamlike blurs.
The female characters of Arnold’s films undergo profound inner development, which spectators can only empathise with through the affective camerawork that shows how it feels to be the object of the gaze. It also accompanies that gaze as a way of seeing that is more tangible than sight – reminiscent of what writer Jill Soloway describes as feeling-seeing. We feel the protagonists differently by the end of the film, their metamorphoses being more physical than explicitly psychological.
In Fish Tank, Mia progresses from the rebellion and secrecy of her performance, to the confidence of the reconciliatory (and farwell) dance she shares with her mother and younger sister before she leaves for a new life. Similarly, we see Star dumpster-diving in the beginning of American Honey, as her hesitation and shame interplay with her brashness and coming-of-age. By the end of the film (by no means that of her journey), she departs from a fireside party frenzy for a solitary swim in a nearby lake. As her body emerges from the water, the camera focuses on a turtle approaching the lake and a firefly disappearing into the night – associating human and animal in a timeless bond.
When Star joins the group of subscription-selling roadies in American Honey, her shy yet radiant presence brings her closer to Jake, appointed team leader, who is also submitted to the whims of ferocious ring-leader Krystal (Riley Keough). Treated like a needle in the smooth power mechanism operating within the group, Star does not act on her desires towards Jake, on the contrary – she is pulled down by him. After many unsuccessful sales attempts, one sun-drenched afternoon, under the veil of child’s play, Jake chases Star through watered yards, verdant gardens, spurring with life, and when he brings her down into the grass, their childlike and animalistic caress is both infantile and arousing. Their kiss cuts to a shot of a bursting sprinkler, effervescent green grass and salubrious sunlight, neutralising their rapturous embrace to a game of eroticism, celebrated by nature’s growth.
Arnold exhibits exquisite command of desire’s kinetic play within her realist aesthetics. Showing how bodies react, aroused and immediate, she channels instincts and emotions without presupposed intellectualisation, suggesting that human is most human when animal. In all of her films, reality is elevated by synergy of the male-female protagonists’ relationships, as they approach each other with an equal dose of sexual appetite and vulnerability. In Star and Jake’s ground wrestle, or the way Conor (Michael Fassbender) carries Mia when she injures her foot, the filmmaker’s exposure is an indispensable part of the character development process. By showing bodies (female and male) as bruised or possessed by desire, the transition between male to female power is weaved ephemerally.
Within presupposed gender confines, Andrea Arnold’s female characters transcend a potential static fetish role to rise as an autarchic, self-assertive image – a positively erotic body that moves, affects, and transforms its surroundings. The transformative force of performance yielded from first-time actresses (in comparison to their experienced male counterparts - Labeouf and Fassbender) reinvents the notion of passivity and agency. Mia and Star encounter assertive masculine energy and are passionately drawn to it, in order to subsequently dispense with it and transcend it.
In the tribal language of American Honey, bodies belong to the group, not the individual, as the shared sleeping arrangements, the packed seats in the car, the bonfire rituals attest to. Yet Star remains in control of her own body on the path to self-exploration and pleasurable sexuality. The retreat from social obligations characterises both Mia (leading a secret life away from home) and Star (joining the sales group on the road). If in Fish Tank Mia dances to express her own liberation from the fish tank of a city, Star has no spatial confines on an endless American road trip – although her solitary swim in the lake at night time represents a grounded, embodied, quasi-animal certainty of the flawed social structures. While Andrea Arnold’s films offer a lot more than social commentary, her characters are conscious of their own restrains and reinvent themselves physically, as female, as animal, as human.
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Savina Petkova (@savinapetkova) is a film critic/PhD candidate based in London who lives from one film festival to another. She specialises in animal representations in contemporary film and writes for Electric Ghost Magazine and MUBI Notebook.