Hot to Trot: Ann Oren’s “Piaffe”

Eva (Simone Bucio) in Ann Oren’s Piaffe (Courtesy Oscilloscope)

Piaffe, Ann Oren’s lusty ASMR-laden debut feature in 16mm, pivots around a timid young woman named Eva (Simone Bucio) having to play substitute Foley artist to Zara (Simon(è) Jaikiriuma Paetau), her troubled sibling holed up in a psych ward. Their shared apartment is a ready-to-go sound studio, where pairs of brogues and boots are purposefully delineated across the floor in tandem with boxes of hay and sand, all employed to simulate the sound of clopping horse-hooves and buckles, to match with a silent horse and rider projected on screen. We soon learn, in a comical scene with a fastidious Warhol wig-wearing ad director and his background lackeys, that this looped scene is part of a commercial for anti-anxiety mood stabilizer medication. He snottily tells Eva she is a “shitty replacement” for Zara, her predecessor.

As Eva sets about improving her mimicry game and studying firsthand the sounds of a horse in movement, a tail begins to sprout from her backside. This is no Cronenbergian body horror scenario, however, as Eva flees a doctor’s office with her X-ray in tow, joyful at the sight of her freaky new member. In turn, she grows bolder, striking up an erotic dalliance with a taciturn botanist (Sebastian Rudolph) encountered in her prim and antiquated workplace, which features a round peep show booth, where the man studies exotic plants through viewfinders. We see what he sees: ferns unfurling in surreal time-lapse mode. Eva watches him watching them, herself soon to become another intriguing specimen before his gaze. In a subsequent scene, she confronts him with potted flowers and a flourishing ponytail jutting from her jeans. Caressing her inexplicable horsehair, he jerks her (tail) off, to her ecstatic pleasure. One of the film’s most tantalizing images is of the thorny stem of a red rose easing down Eva’s throat, like a swallowed sword—her mouth stuffed with petals that muffle her orgasmic moans. Her own tail also comes in handy for some consensual asphyxiation. 

Oren’s sonic props are delightfully visceral, each object taking on a fetishist sheen, including my personal favorites, a red rotary telephone that Eva uses to make a seductive call to her botanical lover, followed by a later scene with the tandem click-clack of their shoes as he escorts her off his workplace premises. All the colors, from lush greens to indigo blues, are saturated and rich, though the most striking of scarlet reds intensify from scene to scene, typified by Eva’s red lipstick destined for smearing.

Eva (Simone Bucio) in Ann Oren’s Piaffe (Courtesy Oscilloscope)

Piaffe, a word eluding to diagonal dressage movement (from the French verb meaning “to strut” or “to paw the ground”), is also an Italian word (as the filmmaker explained in an interview for Screen Slate), referring to frontline battles on horseback when the rider keeps the horse in a constant state of excitement. Indeed, Eva trots in one spot whenever she is aroused.

There are myriad associations at play, from The Untamed (a thriller from 2016 also starring Simone Bucio playing a woman who has a sexual rapport with a tentacled alien-beast), to Catherine Breillat’s Romance, to Titane, to Secretary, and another mystical horse drama, Clara Sola – not to mention those images galloping at the origin of cinema – Muybridge’s trip-wired horse photos. Prior to this feature, Oren made a succession of arts installations, one of them titled An Eye for an Eye, a small screen with a close-up of Isabelle Huppert’s disembodied eye, a reverse peep show comprised of scenes derived from Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher, where Huppert played a severe woman who strikes up a treacherous infatuation with a student.

Zara (Simon(è) Jaikiriuma Paetau) and Eva (Simone Bucio) in Ann Oren’s Piaffe (Courtesy Oscilloscope)

The self-conscious references combined speak to Oren’s proclivity for portraying the demonic and destructive undertones of desire, alongside interspecies commingling. In order for Eva to extend her excitement she has to cause trouble for herself. She doesn’t appear to want love as much as she wants animalistic debasement and detachment. Eva exists to be undermined, returning to a familiar state of anxious-avoidant attachment, exacerbated by the intimidating presence of Zara. The rivalrous siblings mirror each other in the way they’re both becoming–unbecoming animal (yes, it’s all rather Deleuzian), sparring across an emptied-out nightclub dance floor. The ferality of the club scenes (with throbbingly generic techno music) breaks up the otherwise precious quality that begins to weigh down the story, and there’s the rub. 

For all the film’s attentively textured aural and visual components, there’s no emotional follow-through among the three main characters. It is a film trapped by its mannered facade and surface provocations. Zara, the unhinged sibling, is particularly underdeveloped (it’s worth pointing out here that Paetau who plays Zara was the human-equine lead in Oren’s 2020 short film prequel to Piaffe, titled Passage). Nearly every shot devolves in stylized posing, bottlenecking the narrative in a default mode of wordless weirdness and lens flares that jarringly distract from the flow of action.

Nevertheless, Bucio and Paetau’s dueling allure (and their easy-on-the-eyes visages) keep you beguiled through to the final scene, which isn’t so much a moment of castration as a form of abject-grotesque exposure, or perhaps can be read as a de-feminization. Eva’s hypersensitive organ survives the threat – bracing for further gratification.


Jessica Almereyda has work published in Art Agenda, Art Observed, Blue Arrangements, BOMB, Big Other, Brooklyn Rail, Caesura, Fence, Hotel, Liber Feminist Review, Manhattan Art Review, Overland, and others. She is based in New York.

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