Whales and cannibals: IN THE HEART OF THE SEA (Ron Howard, 2015)

Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, the original ‘Great American Novel’, was based on the story of the Essex, a whaling ship that was destroyed by a bull sperm whale in 1820. The story of the wreck, and particularly the subsequent cannibalism that some of the survivors employed to survive, has largely faded from public knowledge (Moby Dick finished with the whale sinking the ship), but in the nineteenth century, every American child would have learnt about it at school, and this film starts with a young Melville (Ben Wishaw, who played a very different role in Perfume) seeking out the last survivor some decades later, hoping to get the full story to use in his novel.

This film is based on a meticulously researched 2000 book of the same name on the Essex disaster by Nathaniel Philbrick, which won him the National Book Award for Nonfiction in that year. Whaling was no more controversial in the early nineteenth century than crude oil in the early twentieth – it was used to power the factories and light up the cities of the world, and was worth a fortune. As the fleets decimated the whales near shore, the boats had to head further into, well, the heart of the sea, to find their victims. Whaling was, and remains, an incredibly brutal business, with small boats harpooning the giant mammals then drawing near and stabbing them to death. A successful kill was signalled by a plume of blood spurting out of the whale’s blowhole.

Whaling was a class-based system, with the captains drawn from the powerful old families in Nantucket, the tiny American island that was the centre of the industry. The main protagonist of the film is Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth – the mighty Thor) as the first mate, who was refused the captaincy because he is socially inferior, an “off-islander”.

His best friend is the second mate Matthew Joy (Cillian Murphy from 28 Days Later). The Captain, George Pollard (Benjamin Walker from Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter) is ineffectual but is from one of the original Nantucket families, and so has been promoted over Chase. In fact, the ships were run on strict class and race lines: the African-Americans and off-islanders lived in the Foc’s’le or front of the ship, where the food was inferior, and did the dirty work. The Nantucketers lived aft, and were fed and treated better. They were, in general, the ones that survived sinkings. Six African-Americans made it into the whaling boats – none survived. True Nantucketers were also mostly devout Quakers, pacifists who, however, saw no problem in killing magnificent whales and “raising bloody havoc at sea” as Philbrick put it. Class conflict is the basis of the story for the first half, before the angry whale comes along.

The story of the Essex is told to Melville by a decrepit old drunk who is the last remaining survivor, Thomas Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson, who was also in 28 Days Later). Nickerson had been a cabin boy (played by Tom Holland – Spiderman) when the boat sank. Nickerson did write an account of the events, but it was not discovered until 1980, so Melville did not in fact use his words. Chase’s brief account would have been the one known to Melville, who embroidered the conflict, as authors do, to make the whale white and almost supernatural, and avoided the controversy, not mentioning the cannibalism that resulted from the wrecking of the boat.

This does shed some light on the different reception of cannibalism over time. When the Essex set sail, cannibalism at sea after shipwrecks was not uncommon, and was generally considered embarrassing but necessary. The Monty Python team did a skit based on a version of this incident.

In the Heart of the Sea suggests a conspiracy by the whaling company to ignore the cannibalism as the presence at sea of a giant, angry whale would discourage further exploration, but Chase and Pollard refuse to cooperate. By Melville’s time, cannibalism was too graphic for his potential audience (he wanted to sell books after all). In our time, the great white whale is still of interest, in that he represents nature fighting back against human rapaciousness, but the real point of this film is now the cannibalism. Would anyone go to see a movie about a shipwreck if Thor didn’t eat anyone?

Or even if he did. The film’s tagline was “Based on the incredible true story that inspired Moby-Dick”, which did not inspire enough people to see it – it grossed $93 million, which sounds great until you see that it’s budget was $100 million. It scored a paltry 42% on Rotten Tomatoes, with the Seattle Times critic summarising it as:

“Thor and Spider-Man fight a whale.”

Despite some critics seeing the movie as over-long and dull, the scenes at sea are full of action (if not exactly Pirates of the Caribbean) and very well done, and the special effects are spectacular, especially the whales and the sails, and the whales demolishing the sails (you can guess which side I was on).

But as Philbrick wrote in his book,

The Essex disaster is not a tale of adventure. It is a tragedy that happens to be one of the greatest true stories ever told. (p.236)

The halfway point of a movie is usually the turning point in some form, and it certainly is here – in the middle of the film, in the middle of the Pacific, they finally find an abundance of whales, including the great white whale that they were warned about on a stop in Ecuador. He charges the ship, staves in the side, the whale oil they had collected goes up in flames, and they have to abandon ship and fit as much food as they can (which isn’t much) into their little whaling boats.

The rest of the movie is all about how some (a few) of them survived the long voyage of 4,500 nautical miles back to South America. They reach a small but uninhabitable island, and the white whale makes them welcome by tipping over their boats as they head for the beach. Chase and the Captain abandon their class struggle to engage in dialogue about anthropocentric carnivorous virility instead.

Pollard answers with presupposed anthropocentric arrogance.

“We are supreme creatures, made in God’s own likeness. Earthly kings, whose business it is to circumnavigate the planet bestowed to us…”

The island cannot sustain them – they find the skeletons of a previous party that took shelter there, so repair the boats and head off again for another agonising trip across the endless ocean. After 48 days stranded, with almost no food or water, one of the sailors on Chase’s boat dies. The others prepare to toss him overboard, but Chase stops them. It’s all handled quite delicately, but it’s definitely become a cannibal movie.

“We prepared the body. We removed the organs. Separated his limbs from his body and cut all the flesh from the bones.”

In the other boat, no one dies so conveniently, so they draw straws for a victim. The captain gets the short straw, but his cousin cannot shoot him and shoots himself instead, keeping the catering in the family.

The whale comes back, but he and Chase exchange a look, and Chase cannot bring himself to kill the magnificent bull.

After ninety days at sea, the survivors reached South America. According to the book, a boat that drew up alongside saw two men sucking the marrow from the bones of the dead, refusing to give them up. Unlike some survivor cannibal stories such as Alive, where the actors looked pretty much the same weight at the end of the ordeal, Hemsworth reported that the cast were put on a strict ration of 500–600 calories a day, and he lost 40 pounds (18kg), giving him a reasonable idea of what the sailors had gone through.

What the film doesn’t mention is that the survivors could have had a much easier time of it if they had headed not for South America but west toward the Marquesas Islands, only 1,200 miles away. They chose not to do so, because of earlier reports that the natives were, yep, cannibals. One mariner, Georg von Langsdorff, had written in 1804 that the natives so loved human flesh that “those who have once eaten it can with difficulty abstain from it.” Of course, it was all nonsense.

Instead, they headed east, and ended up eating each other.

Scentless cannibalism: “PERFUME, The Story of a Murderer” (Tom Tykwer, 2006)

Making a movie of a hugely successful book is always fraught – if it is faithful to the book, it is criticised as too derivative and unoriginal, if it diverges, it is damned for breaking the spell by adding new and extraneous material.

The 2006 film of Perfume sticks pretty closely to Patrick Süskind’s novel of the same name, (originally written in German) which has sold over twenty million copies in 49 languages. There is also a German Netflix TV series of Perfume released in 2018. I haven’t checked that out yet, but it sounds very postmodern (the protagonists have read Süskind’s book!)

This 2006 film features a stellar cast, who do a pretty great job with it. Hard to go wrong with Dustin Hoffman and the sadly missed Alan Rickman, and you will also recognise Ben Wishaw as the main character, Jean-Baptiste Grenouille. It is directed by Tom Twyker, and who can forget his Run Lola Run? Since Grenouille doesn’t say much, we have a narrator, and who can fault the pipes of the late, great John Hurt – you may remember him giving birth through his chest in Alien.

The lead character, Grenouille (Ben Wishaw), is a kind of supervillain, whose superpower is, wait for it, his nose. Grenouille is born in eighteenth century France in the worst circumstances – his mother drops him in the muck under her fish stall, assuming he will be stillborn like all her previous births. But he survives, and turns out to have the most sensitive nose ever – he can identify any smell, good or bad. He is raised in an orphanage and sold to a tanner, who eventually takes him to town, where he discovers the ‘scent of a woman’ (not to be confused with Al Pacino’s rather better behaved but still slightly creepy obsession). Young women are all too often the victims in modern movies, but usually they are desired for sex or (in cannibal movies) for nutrition. These young women just smell good. Grenouille is obsessed with capturing that scent, and thus their beauty.

One of the great teachers of Cannibal Studies is a certain Doctor Hannibal Lecter, seen sniffing Will Graham in the episode Coquilles. He taught us, among other things, that

“Taste and smell are the oldest senses, and closest to the centre of the mind. Parts that precede pity and morality.”

Well, a whole lot of cannibal movies concern the taste of humans (short summary: we taste somewhere between wild boar and veal). But smell, that primal sense that so many animals rely on, is usually neglected. Not so in this movie. If cannibalism is the consumption of another member of one’s own kind, then it can involve the devouring of any part, and that includes their odour.

Grenouille sniffs people, a bit like Hannibal, but with a different appetite. He terrifies a young woman by sniffing her, then unintentionally smothers her as he tries to silence her screams. He is horrified to find that her scent disappears as her body cools, and he becomes obsessed with the craving to recreate that smell. He decides that his life mission is to learn how to preserve scent,

He persuades a creator of perfumes, Baldini (Dustin Hoffman), to teach him the trade, in return for creating perfumes that make Baldini rich and famous.

But Grenouille cannot distil the essence of a person (or a cat in a particularly objectionable scene). For that, he needs to go to the perfume capital, Grasse, and learn their art of enfleurage. Baldini has told him that a great perfume has twelve different components, and a thirteenth scent that must be exquisite. On the way to Grasse he sees a young woman, Laura (Rachel Hurd-Wood) who he realises must become his thirteenth scent.

Her father Antoine (Alan Rickman) disagrees. He guesses the murderer’s motive.

Of course, killing the other twelve girls for the first twelve scents throws the town into panic, and in a startling recreation of 2020’s COVID-19 headlines, the town is closed down and the economy devastated as the murderer (he is variously described as a plague, a madman, an angel and a demon) is sought.

There’s a chase, Antoine leaves a false trail, but hey, you can’t hide from Supernose. He’s out to create Love Potion No. 9.

The film received mixed reviews (59%) on Rotten Tomatoes. The doyen of film critics, Roger Ebert, wrote

“This is a dark, dark, dark film, focused on an obsession so complete and lonely it shuts out all other human experience. You may not savor it, but you will not stop watching it, in horror and fascination.”

But his long-term co-host on Ebert & Roeper, Richard Roeper, said “Hated this movie. Hated it.

Look, I try to avoid spoilers, but I will mention that absorbing the scent of beautiful women is not the only kind of cannibalism in this movie. The ending has some of the more traditional kind but, to me, this would still have been a cannibal movie if he had only incorporated scents. Cannibalism is about voracious appetite, but not necessarily for food. We never see Grenouille eat or drink – scent seems to be all he needs, like the Astomi peoples who, according to Pliny, had no mouths and lived on odours. Furthermore, Grenouille has no scent of his own, this makes him an outsider, an alien, and explains why he seems invisible to others and can sneak past guard-dogs (who would understand, with Grenouille, the importance of smell). The modern cannibal, from Jack the Ripper to Jeffrey Dahmer, is typically invisible, unidentifiable, blending in with the crowd. Grenouille, though, is appalled to find that he has no identity to others in the only way that matters to him – through smell. He seeks to steal that identity from his victims, and incorporate the essence of their beauty into himself. The scent he creates is distilled beauty, with a menacing power – it can command love, leading to a mass orgy at what was supposed to be an execution.

Absence is one thing, surfeit another, but both can be lethal.

Incorporating the other, be it through eating, smelling, farming, enslaving or invading, is cannibalism.