Review: ‘Caniba’

TIFF 2017

5 mins read

(France, 90 min.)
Dir. Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel
Programme: Wavelengths (North American Premiere)


“Bring a barf bag,” was a warning I heard from a TIFF insider before I saw Caniba. This wasn’t exactly surprising to hear. I knew two things already about the film in question: one, that Caniba is the new film by Sensory Ethnography Lab-affiliated filmmakers Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel, whose 2012 film Leviathan is, for my money, one of the most inventive, immersive, provocative and nauseating films of recent memory; two, that it’s a film about the cannibal Issei Sagawa, who, in Paris in 1981, killed and partially ate a Dutch woman named Renée Hartevelt.

Picard’s and Paravel’s introductions only deepened my morbid curiosity. Wavelengths programmer Andrea Picard called it one of the most intense and disturbing films she’d ever seen; Paravel called it a comedy. And the film’s introductory passages—a paragraph detailing the crime and its punishment; a French radio excerpt doing the same; and a Bible verse, John 6:53-4, the “eat my flesh and drink my blood” bit—had me at an anticipatory high.

I should mention here that—through no fault of my own—I actually know rather a lot about cannibalism. I took a course in university called Empire & Globalization that focused inordinately on European and Christian ideas of cannibalism: namely, projecting the anxieties around that bizarre Christian Communion ritual onto subjugated native groups in the Americas and Africa (see Bartolomé de las Casas’ Destruction of the Indies, Caliban in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, etc.).

None of that prepared me for the actual experience of watching Caniba, because, in spite of its deep engagement with those issues, the film directly addresses almost none of them.

Caniba is comprised almost completely of extreme and often blurry or occluded close-ups of Sagawa and his brother. Paravel pointed out that it’s their first film to feature language, but that language is pretty sparse. There are also clips from a pornographic film that Sagawa starred in and a manga he wrote about his crime shot in the same intense style. It’s extremely slow, very quiet and almost unbearably claustrophobic.

Sagawa may or may not have been “insane” when he stood trial but is certainly sick now, with a bearing—silent, vacant—extraordinarily similar to that of the titular Alzheimer’s sufferer in Wang Bing’s masterpiece Mrs. Fang, also screening in the Wavelengths programme. What little he says is properly disturbing in the way only frank discussion of cannibalistic desire could possibly be. He wants to be eaten—by Renée, no less; he wanted to eat her ass and thighs above all; sexual satisfaction was the only way to keep his cannibalism in check; you know what, I’ll stop there.

What’s just as interesting is Sagawa’s brother and career. It turns out that he has his own violent fetishes—masochistic, in his case—and demonstrates them for the camera in truly brutal fashion. Again, it’s the frankness and the claustrophobia as much as the perversion that make this part of the film so viscerally disturbing.

Paravel and Castaing-Taylor don’t speak Japanese, which meant that the overwhelming feeling during the filming was not disgust or interest but boredom. I have to say that the same thing goes for watching the film. What’s remarkable about Caniba is not just what it is but what it isn’t. It refuses to buy into the “weird Japan” stereotype, it refuses to intellectualize or contextualize Sagawa; in fact, it refuses to do just about everything except follow the instinct that its extreme strategic strategy would pay off.

To that point, your mileage may vary. Though I found Caniba to be overwhelmingly effective on a sensory level, I didn’t come away with any particular insight into cannibalism or anything else. Though it risks dulling the sensory experience somewhat, a gallery setting might better serve the film’s themes—a little distance could go a long way.

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