Free the Vagina: A Conversation with Renata Gasiorowska

Inside Criterion / On the Channel — Jul 2, 2018

It’s a frustrating truth that, even in 2018, it’s hard to find depictions of female sexual pleasure on-screen, let alone ones that highlight women’s agency and subjectivity. While studying at the National Film School in Łodz, Polish director Renata Gasiorowska set out to use her art to explore the pleasures and pitfalls of masturbation. She wanted to do it without shying away from visualizing female desire, while also maintaining a sense of humor and playfulness. Her animated short Pussy follows a bored, horny young woman who tries to relax and get herself off as a series of obstacles, including a voyeuristic raccoon, keep getting in her way. Drawn almost entirely in a sparse style that allows the action to come to the fore, the film shifts at a key climactic moment and takes on an abstract look inspired by the work of the great animator Norman McLaren.

With the film premiering today on the Criterion Channel on FilmStruck, I talked to Gasiorowska about what she set out to achieve with the film and the techniques she used in it.

How have people reacted to the film, the subject, the title?

Very well! I was surprised by the many positive responses. The title, Pussy, sounds a bit stronger in Polish (“Cipka”) and I thought it might be a little problematic, but it wasn’t—I think more women feel we should reclaim that word. And there are not that many Polish words describing the vulva that aren’t childish, medical, or vulgar. I also heard responses from guys who felt the film was educational.

What inspired you to make Pussy?

I wanted to make an erotic film, and as I started sketching and thinking I really quickly got an idea to make one about masturbation. The pussy character naturally appeared in my drawings and sketches, and then whole scenes and situations came to my mind. I thought this could be a funny, relatable erotic comedy but also a more general story about a woman’s liberation.

The animation style is quite minimalistic and intentionally simple. Is that a signature style for you, or was it more a case of finding a style for the subject?

I always try to make characters and art as simple as possible while still having them be charming. This was a film I made at school, so I had to do it all by myself, and I couldn’t waste time animating complicated characters with a lot of details. I only had a small budget to hire one animator to help me. Also, generally in my school the “substance over style” approach is encouraged, and we talk much more about the script and concept than about the look of the film. The backgrounds in Pussy are very minimalistic too. I just didn’t want them to distract viewers from the characters, so I kept them as boring and “Ikea-style” as possible.

How did you actually create the animation?

All the character animation was made with a software called Toon Boom. Backgrounds were drawn on paper with red and blue felt-tip pens and scanned. The orgasm sequence was done using paint and water, pieces of paper under the camera, and some hand-drawn animation, and all of this was combined in After Effects.

What about the abstract section? It’s reminiscent of Norman McLaren and other experimental filmmakers’ work.

It was indeed heavily inspired by McLaren. I saw a retrospective of his work at a film festival when I was still a teenager, and it was one of those experiences that made me want to do animation myself! I decided that the orgasm scene needed a different look, like we are inside of the girl’s head and it’s completely abstract. 

How did you approach the sound design? It’s so visceral and integral to the film.

The sound design was done by Ewa Bogusz, and the foley artist is this older man named Wiesław Nowak, and it was really funny to have him make pussy sounds! Luckily, he’s totally chill. They both work at my school in the sound department. I think it’s around a fifty-fifty mix of sounds from foley and sounds from the sound library. Generally the film is pretty quiet. There are sounds of fruits being squeezed and chewed, combined with sounds of fingers rubbing against skin. I wanted to keep a very intimate mood, so every sound has even more power.

Can you talk about creating the character of the pussy? It’s sweet but also powerful.

It’s good that you think so because that was my intent! She is both a cute little animal and a vagina dentata! I wanted her to have a separate personality from her clumsy and distracted owner. She knows what to do to achieve pleasure and “teaches” the girl. At the beginning, when I was sketching her, she was more realistic, but I ultimately went for a simpler, more cartoonish look, so she would fit with the girl and be more expressive. Also, drawing all those hairs was a real pain in the ass.

Are there animators, filmmakers, or artists who inspire you?

The most obvious inspiration would be Signe Baumane, especially because of the humor and lightness in how she approaches sexuality. Also, there’s anime like Cat Soup and works by Masaaki Yuasa, with their fluidity and their crazy transformations and expressions. As for the theme of pleasure, I absolutely love the work of Yoriko Mizushiri, though I only saw her films after I made Pussy. Which is a shame, because her kind of sensuality and softness was something I was trying to get in the scenes where the pussy rubs herself on different surfaces and objects—it would have been such a great inspiration. Or maybe it’s good, because I might have taken too much inspiration!