• [The Daily] Venice + Toronto 2017: Caniba

    By David Hudson

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    “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.”

    Update, 9/24: “Among other things,” writes Nick Pinkerton for Artforum,Caniba is a study in pampered self-satisfaction, the undying compulsion toward sibling rivalry, and the invidious power of audio-visual suggestion—walk-outs abounded at my screening, though much of the worst here is willfully obscured.”

    Update, 10/14: “Speaking after Caniba’s Venice world premiere, before the documentary was shown in Toronto and New York,” writes Ela Bittencourt for Kinoscope, “Paravel and Castaing-Taylor stressed their goal to address Issei as a man, and to shatter the caricature previous portraits had provided of him.” The filmmakers also “problematize to what extent cannibalism really is as alien to our nature. To be sure, Caniba does not go as far as to suggest cannibalism is a drive we all share, but it does raise several thought-provoking parallels with religion (opening with a telling excerpt from the Gospel of St. John: ‘whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me’) and sexuality, with Issei elaborating on the ways in which cannibalistic desires are an extension of primal sexual urges.”

    Update, 10/16: “The film asks a lot of its audience, more than any previous HSEL project,” writes Scout Tafoya at RogerEbert.com. “Sagawa was never convicted so he's not technically a criminal, so naturally I thought long and hard about our President and Harvey Weinstein while staring at this grinning sociopath's mask-like features. One man's monster is another's celebrity. . . . I don't know that what we need right now is to sympathize with monsters. Maybe in a decade I'll be ready to treat Caniba fairly. Right now, all I can think about is that Renée Hartevelt won't get a movie.”

    Update, 10/22: In a new video interview in the Notebook, Jordan Cronk talks with Paravel and Castaing-Taylor (20’32”).

    Update, 11/16: Caniba “is one of the most probing and stylistically daring explorations of human perversity,” writes Zuzia Czemier-Wolonciej for Bright Lights Film Journal. “What is idiosyncratic is the struggle to bear one’s own perversion, big or small. The severity of this struggle becomes poignantly clear in Jun’s dismay when Issei expresses no interest in his masochism. Later, after a graphic scene of self-mutilation, Jun resigns: ‘I may die with not knowing why I do this.’ With this sentence the vicarious pain we experience by watching Jun’s bleeding body becomes emotional – no longer a cringe reflex, but something closer to compassion.”

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

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