• [The Daily] Venice + Toronto 2017: Caniba

    By David Hudson


    “On paper, what could be more sordid than an interview-portrait with Issei Sagawa, the infamous cannibal who became a tabloid sensation in the early 80s after he murdered and ate part of a Dutch woman in Paris?” asks Dan Sullivan in Cinema Scope.Caniba, the new film by Véréna Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor, doesn’t exactly skimp on the details of Sagawa’s crime nor the rather incredible life he has led since returning to Japan (including turns as a graphic novelist and an extreme-porn actor), but Tabloid this is not. . . . Caniba may be tough to take in, but you’d have a difficult time finding another film that contains this much fascinating and terrible humanity.”

    Introducing his interview with Paravel and Castaing-Taylor, Film Comment editor Nicolas Rapold notes that they’ve shot Caniba “almost entirely in close-ups, a talking head in which (as they explain) the head is not always talking. But that’s half the story: Issei Sagawa’s brother, Jun, who looks after him, becomes a kind of interlocutor, one who introduces to the story his own unusual proclivities. A sequence of 8mm home movie footage and a key story involving their mother also serve to explain everything and nothing.”

    “Their contemporary-fishery film Leviathan, from 2012, remains one of the most essential documentaries of the decade, and put Harvard University’s Sensory Ethnography Lab, which also co-produced this film, on the map for nonfiction cinephiles,” writes Boyd van Hoeij in the Hollywood Reporter. “Like in Leviathan and also their collaboration from earlier this year, the sublimely strange somniloquies, the directors aren’t big fans of either establishing shots or images that are pin-sharp. As if to honor the ‘sensory’ part of the name of the Harvard lab that is run by Castaing-Taylor, their lengthy shots of smudgy, out-of-focus visuals and unnervingly close closeups force viewers to not only use their eyes but also their other senses to meditate on and try to go beyond what is simply presented visually.”

    At Vague Visages, Marshall Schafer points out that Caniba “is bookended by a quote from the Gospels that casts the Christian sacrament of communication in a cannibalistic light and a French pop song. In between, Castaing-Taylor and Paravel treat viewers to any number of musings from Sagawa—and a few demonstrations of his desires, both carnal and carnivorous. Of course, Caniba never justifies any of Sagawa’s twisted world views, but the film does provide value by illuminating how he connects the dots between various cultural touchpoints and arrives at cannibalism as a legitimate avenue for desire fulfillment.”

    “Ultimately, what registers is senseless, morbid fascination,” finds Lawrence Garcia at In Review Online. “When it comes to documentary filmmaking, there can be a certain integrity to staring horror squarely in the eye; in this case, though, the directors would have done better to just look away.”

    More from Carlota Moseguí (Cineuropa) and José Sarmiento Hinojosa (desistfilm).

    Update, 9/15: “The screen image becomes like a skin itself,” writes Notebook editor Daniel Kasman, “the texture of the skin explored and played with by the camera, so that fascination with Caniba amounts to fascination with skin—human flesh—that the audience consumes. Never less than entrancing, the experience is nevertheless somewhat monotonous—forever attuned to the gnomic surface covering a disturbed person’s inner soul—and the ethics of this approach are quite uncomfortable.”

    Ethan Vestby at the Film Stage: “There’s still the feeling that Caniba is a little too satisfied with the instant revulsion at hand, yet afraid to push into deeper psychology, as if not extending much beyond Sagawa’s own readymade link between sexuality and cannibalism, the ugly rich kid’s lustful entitlement realized to gruesome ends. As disturbing as the film can be, at the end of the day one doesn’t really take much away from it.”

    Update, 9/16:Caniba, which, in the spirit of other films made by the SEL, spurns any pretense of objectivity and offers viewers an ‘immersive’ viewing experience, inevitably feeds off the macabre fascination with Sagawa’s psychosis that has made him something of a minor celebrity in Japan and even inspired songs by the Rolling Stones (‘Too Much Blood’) and the English rock group The Stranglers (‘La Folie’), which is played over the film’s end credits,” writes Richard Porton for the Daily Beast. And “it’s difficult to come away from Caniba without thinking that Castaing-Taylor and Paravel want to have it both ways—they relish the outrage caused by a scandalous film yet rush to defend it as a product of anthropological detachment and ‘ethical ambivalence.’”

    Update, 9/19: Caniba “makes a proud point of its unpleasantness,” writes Variety’s Guy Lodge. “Audiences are invited to consider the nature of their revulsion, and whether it’s rooted simply in fear of the other, or recognition of the abject in themselves.”

    Venice and Toronto 2017 indexes. For news and items of interest throughout the day, every day, follow @CriterionDaily.

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