Cannibalism as eating disorder: FEED ME (2022)

So, the buzz for this movie is ‘Ted Lasso goes cannibal’. By that, they don’t imply we will need to sit through any football matches, but that there is going to be a lot of American “can-do” ardour, conflicting with British reticence and melancholy. Also some dark humour, and a whole lot of gore, which some may find objectionable. Consider yourselves warned.

Feed Me is directed by Adam Leader and Richard Oakes (Hosts). XYZ Films released the horror-comedy on October 27 2022 on digital and on demand platforms. Feed Me follows Jed (Christopher Mulvin) whose life is shattered when his wife Olivia (Samantha Loxley) suddenly dies, leaving him feeling guilty. The blurb says:

“Spiralling into an abyss of depression, he finds himself in a bar with a deranged cannibal, Lionel Flack (Neal Ward) who convinces him he can redeem himself through the glorious act of allowing himself to be slowly eaten to death.”

Suicide, usually unassisted, is sadly common in modern society, and besides making the relatives wretched, it is also an enormous inconvenience to the police, medics and trauma-cleaners who have to deal with it. So why not benefit someone – the local cannibal who promises a painless death that will not require housekeeping, because he will eat the resulting mess? Jed moves in with Lionel, whose tiny house is filthy and full of body parts. But Jed is ready, eager to die, and Lionel is tremblingly eager to eat him.

Cannibalism, particularly vorarephilia (the erotic desire to consume or be consumed by another) can be seen as a type of eating disorder, particularly in cases where there are other foods readily available, but if that is the case, so can any form of carnivory. The film starts and finishes with such reflections – Jed’s wife is a beautiful young woman who is convinced she is fat and ugly, and eventually dies from the effects of bulimia – she starves herself and vomits out whatever nourishment she does eat, until her body closes down.

As Jed explains it, her mental illness meant that she “was eaten from the inside out.” Lionel’s solution is that, if Jed is determined to kill himself, he should do it from the outside in.

Lionel quotes some fake anthropology – a tribe called the Yiurkun who, he says, live in perpetual happiness,

His offer (and there is a written contract involved) is to eat Jed, quickly and painlessly, so he can join his beloved. Why not, Jed thinks, since Olivia has effectively (in his dreams) eaten his heart?

Lionel starts small – local anaesthetic, one finger chopped off with secateurs and carefully cooked, the wound cauterised with a hot clothes iron. “How do you feel?” Lionel asks.

But of course you can’t eat a whole person one finger at a time, and it’s not long before Lionel is removing limbs, but now without anaesthetic, because he gets mad at Jed.

Lionel says he has heard that

“some cultures believe that torturing the animal alive improves the taste and quality of the meat.”

This is not an invention of the director – it’s well known that dogs and cats and other animals are often beaten or burnt or at least made to watch the death of other animals, to make the terror and agony generate adrenalin, which is supposed to add flavour. Astonishingly, Hillary Clinton was accused of doing the same to small children. Other politicians have had the same accusations hurled at them. While these are almost certainly nonsense, it is true that almost every one of the seventy billion land animals humans eat each year will go through extremely painful ordeals, and all of the trillions of sea creatures. Jed is just one more animal in agony.

When the neighbour calls police about all the screaming going on, Lionel invites them in and feeds them some of his “mild veal”.

The enjoyment of food depends largely on what we believe about it. The actor playing the cop is probably in fact eating a piece of veal. His character, the cop, believes he is indeed eating veal. The audience, us, suspends disbelief so we can imagine that he is actually eating part of Jed’s leg. This turns the meal from gourmet to horror – a simple change of species, entirely within our imagination. The title, FEED ME, challenges the assumption that food will be prepared and served with our preconceptions catered for – it will be tasty and uncontroversial. In this society, eating a baby cow who wanted to live is praiseworthy; eating a man who wants to die is horrific.

The title reminded me of a foodie show called “Somebody Feed Phil” which sees writer and producer Phil Rosenthal (Everybody Loves Raymond) travelling around the world eating huge dishes of food while adding no weight to his irritatingly slim frame. In a recent episode, Phil lands in Madrid and apologises to a suckling (newborn) pig –

“you’re very cute, but I’m going to eat you.”

Most cannibals, like carnivores everywhere, do not usually have their victim’s permission, and usually do not apologise either, although they may feel some cognitive dissonance, knowing that their meal required the suffering and slaughter of the animal whose flesh is involved. Phil didn’t kill the new-born baby pig, but did apologise for eating him. Jeffrey Dahmer killed seventeen men and boys and also didn’t apologise (until it was far too late). The closest parallel to the plot of this film (the trailer above states it was “inspired by true events”) is the true case of Armin Meiwes, who advertised for a man who wished to be killed and eaten, had dinner and sex with the only genuine respondent, and then killed and ate him. He felt there was no apology needed, since Jorgen Brandes had wanted, indeed demanded, to be eaten. So it is with Lionel, who offers to kill and eat Jed, and then slowly and gradually makes good on his promise.

Neal Ward plays Lionel as an over the top, twitchy, verbose American con-man, the kind of man we like to think serial killers and cannibals look like, because that would make them easy to spot. Yet the essence of the real modern cannibal is his (or sometimes her) completely normal and unremarkable appearance – they walk among their peers, unknown and unidentified until their arrest (if they are ever found). Neighbours, for example, praised Meiwes as a nice young man who would mow the lawn for them. Issei Sagawa was so small and apparently innocuous that the young woman he killed and ate had been happy to come to his apartment to read poetry together.

The tagline for this movie is

“You are who you eat…”

The concept is interesting – if you are who/what you eat, do you want to eat pigs or chickens or sheep, all of whom are used, quite unjustly, as common insults (for gluttons, cowards or mindless followers). If you are what you eat, Lionel tells us, you should eat humans.

The anthropologist Marvin Harris wrote in his book Good to Eat: Riddles of Food and Culture that, while humans are clearly not obligate carnivores, “our species-given physiology and digestive processes predispose us to learn to prefer animal foods”. This presents a problem for him, since “strictly speaking, human flesh itself contains the highest-quality protein that one can eat”. Lionel’s pathology stems from his calculating, impeccable logic.

The film is a fascinating study of love, loss, despair, friendship, loneliness and appetite. The gore is perhaps a bit over the top, but no longer unusual in modern films. The acting, despite what other reviewers have said, is great and the story compelling. Neal Ward plays Lionel as both a monster and a clown, a hard role to portray, but he is, in the end, seeking the same as all of us – self-acceptance, love, a validation of his humanity, and a good meal.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s