Susan Sontag’s Duet for Cannibals

Susan Sontag’s Duet for Cannibals (1969)

Susan Sontag never ceases to arouse curiosity and debate, but Benjamin Moser’s whopping new biography, Sontag: Her Life and Work, has fanned the flames. Starting Friday, New York’s Metrograph will present a new restoration of the novelist and critic’s directorial debut, fifty years after the world premiere in Cannes in May 1969. Sontag’s “cinephilic knowledge was second to none,” writes Moser, “but when it came to making Duet for Cannibals, she seemed to succeed only at mystification.”

That assessment can’t—and shouldn’t—be read as either a thumbs-up or a thumbs-down, of course, but it might serve as confirmation that with Duet for Cannibals, Sontag was striving to rise to the challenge she’d issued in her 1964 essay “Against Interpretation”—to create a work of art “whose surface is so unified and clean, whose momentum is so rapid, whose address is so direct that the work can be . . . just what it is.” At the same time, no work of art exists in a vacuum, and watching Duet for Cannibals, both Jesse Cataldo at Slant and Colleen Kelsey at Garage are reminded of the same lines from Sontag’s 1967 essay on Ingmar Bergman’s Persona (1966) for Sight & Sound: “Images and dialogue are given which the viewer cannot help but find puzzling, not being able to decipher whether certain scenes take place in the past, present, or future; and whether certain images belong to ‘reality’ or ‘fantasy.’”

In the Times Literary Supplement, Jerome Boyd Maunsell notes that Sontag “was fascinated by the ‘indeterminate’ plot of Bergman’s Persona, deliberately merging illusion and reality; and the ‘intermittent’ plots and ‘suppression of certain explicative connections’ in Godard. While Sontag’s first two novels, The Benefactor (1963) and Death Kit (1967), used both these techniques, Duet does so more successfully and gracefully, with more engaging characters.” These would primarily be Dr. Arthur Bauer (Lars Ekborg), a German Marxist revolutionary who has more or less retired to Sweden with his younger Italian wife, Francesca (Adriana Asti); Tomas (Gösta Ekman), whom Bauer hires to move in and edit his diaries and correspondence; and Ingrid (Agneta Ekmanner), Tomas’s girlfriend. Soon enough, the older couple is subjecting the younger couple to a series of game-like dares involving seduction, power plays, and possibly, murder.

Adam Nayman, writing for the Metrograph, argues that Sontag’s “grasp of power dynamics in her staging and blocking is vice-tight and only improved by the robotized performances of the actors, who, far from seeming ‘stranded’ as per [Pauline] Kael, contribute uniformly controlled, smartly physicalized performances.” Reviewing this “admirably modest picture” for the Village Voice in the fall of 1969, Molly Haskell wrote that these “characters are not interpretable, analyzable, three-dimensional, but are functions of power as a naked energy, and its erotic and murderous impulses. There is no organic relation between who they are and what happens.” Sontag, Haskell added, “is faithful to the principle she has admired in Bresson—preserving the integrity of human mystery.” Manny Farber, writing for Artforum in 1971, was far harsher, opening his brief review by declaring that Duet “looks and feels like skimmed milk . . . What is amazing is how little juice there is in the inventions and characters, yet this grey coagulation keeps going forward in a half-entertaining way.”

Jesse Cataldo shares Farber’s lack of enthusiasm for Duet, suggesting that whether “we’re witnessing the tectonic plates of text and subtext colliding roughly with one another, or just an elaborate gag at the expense of viewers primed to expect impenetrable, pretentious weirdness from their Euro art cinema, is never entirely clear. The film’s ultimate liability, in fact, is that it can’t seem to decide if it’s doing pastiche or parody.” Back in the TLS, though, Maunsell argues that Duet is “closer to Sontag’s romantic and sexual agonies in her diaries than any of her written fiction. On screen, the abstraction in Duet feels organic, engaging, unforced . . . Duet, for all the puzzlement it induces, is horribly funny at points, wrong-footing critics who see Sontag’s work (and Sontag herself) as lacking any humor. It’s often close to farce, or the absurdism of Samuel Beckett or Harold Pinter.”

A few weeks ago, A. O. Scott, a chief film critic for the New York Times, wrote an essay for the Magazine, “How Susan Sontag Taught Me to Think,” and he noted that “the bulk of Sontag’s writing served no overt or implicit ideological agenda. Her agenda—a list of problems to be tackled rather than a roster of positions to be taken—was stubbornly aesthetic. And that may be the most unfashionable, the most shocking, the most infuriating thing about her.”

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