The clicks and whirs of a gigantic, peep show-like contraption known as a zoetrope fill our ears as an enigmatic botanist (Sebastian Rudolph) observes the image of a slowly unfurling fern. Watching him is Eva (Simone Bucio), a timid young woman for whom sound has become something of an obsession.
Her nonbinary sibling, Zara, played by Simon(e) Jaikiriuma Paetau, has had a breakdown, and Eva must take over Zara’s job as a Foley artist for a drug company commercial. She must learn to make the sounds of a horse prancing in place, a dressage move known as a piaffe.
With “Piaffe,” the filmmaker and visual artist Ann Oren, extrapolating from her 2020 short film “Passage,” has made a silken study of physical and erotic transformation. Like the horse that stars in the commercial, Eva exists in a kind of stasis, restrained from moving forward.
Learning to mimic equine behavior emboldens her, and her body responds by sprouting a fleshy appendage that grows rapidly from a penile protuberance to a full-length tail. Timid no longer, Eva pursues a series of erotic encounters with the botanist, who tells her that ferns are hermaphrodites: Like Zara, they embody more than a single gender.
Gorgeously shot by Carlos Vasquez using 16-millimeter film (and filmed in part in the famous Warsaw Fotoplastikon), “Piaffe” is ideologically abstract and beguilingly weird. Its experimental style, marked by long, dialogue-free stretches, color flares and pristine sound effects, can seem calculated and off-putting, the narrative slight and dramatically slack. Yet the film’s provocations have a playfulness and generosity that are enormously appealing. In the same way as the fern, Eva has unfurled from a defensive crouch to an open embrace of who she was meant to be.
Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 26 minutes. In theaters.