Cannibal supermodels: THE NEON DEMON (Nicolas Winding Refn, 2016)

Marcellus (Hamlet Act I, scene iv) claimed that “something is rotten in the state of Denmark”, but it’s not their cannibal films or actors. The Neon Demon is directed by Nicolas Winding Refn (currently in trouble with PETA for killing a pig for a TV series). Refn has made several movies (Pusher, Valhalla Rising, etc) starring Mads Mikkelsen, probably known best by the readers of this blog as Hannibal Lecter, or perhaps Svend in Anders Thomas Jensen’s The Green Butchers. This film does not have Mads in it, but it does have Elle Fanning as a sixteen-year-old model who, we just know, is going to be chewed up, swallowed and spat out by the Los Angeles fashion industry.

Books about screen-writing always stress the opening image – it sets the scene, establishes the atmosphere, tells the viewer what to expect. Well, this one sure does.

Jesse (Elle Fanning from The Great) dead on a couch, blood caked onto her throat and down her arm. A grim male gaze from a photographer. The killer? Police forensics?

No, he’s an amateur photographer doing audition shots for her, and is probably the only nice guy in the story, and we all know where nice guys finish. Anyway, Jesse is befriended, as she wipes off the fake blood, by a make-up artist named Ruby (Jena Malone from The Hunger Games), who takes her to a party to meet the LA fashion scene.

The other models hate her for being young and pretty and not needing the constant plastic surgery to fix all the things the surgeon and our culture say is wrong with their bodies. In the bathroom, as you do, they discuss lipsticks, which they note are always named after either food or sex, and speculate on this new commodity, Jesse. Is she food or sex?

Either way, it’s about appetite. Think of an animal, any animal – a snail, a snake, a human. What is the animal thinking about? It’s almost certainly food or sex. This film combines the two. The men have the power – the celebrity photographer, the fashion designer, even the sleazy motel manager (played with black humour by Keanu Reeves) – Jesse is their fresh meat.

The young, hopeful girls have their looks, and a useful booster of narcissism, a taste for the neon demon of fame, which fuels their journey through the fashion jungle.

When they get “old” (over twenty apparently), they inject various toxins and go under the plastic surgeon’s knife to fix what they are convinced are their failings. But it’s never enough. Jesse sees visions which confirm her own beauty in her eyes:

Women would kill to look like this. They carve and stuff and inject themselves. They starve to death, hoping, praying that one day they’ll look like a second-rate version of me.

But once used up, the women and girls are rejected, discarded, left to fight among themselves – to the death. Jesse is edible to them too, but not in the male way, more in the way that Elizabeth Báthoryis alleged to have bathed in the blood of virgins to keep her youth.

That’s a small taste of the real cannibalism in the film, which infiltrates the metaphoric cannibalism of the meat markets of advertising and fashion. There is an ancient tradition, from the earliest days of tribal ceremonies and the Wendigo to Richard Chase and Armin Meiwes, that eating the flesh or drinking the blood of a victim (preferably a young fit one) will transfer their strength and attractiveness to the eater. If you can keep them down of course.

An even older tradition talks of killing and eating the gods of the harvest, in order that they may be reborn and bring with them next year’s prosperity. The tradition survives in the transubstantiation of the Eucharist service. Jesse is a young and beautiful. She is, or thinks she is, a goddess. How can she not be eaten, in this film both metaphorically and literally?

There is no point in going on with the plot, it’s filled with rape, paedophilia, murder, masturbation, necrophilia, and of course cannibalism, but you really need to see it yourself, and anyway, the plot is not the point. Brian Tellerico, the reviewer from Rogerebert.com, summed this up:

It is a sensory experience, driven by the passion of its fearless filmmaker and a stunning central performance by Elle Fanning.

The director called the film an “adult fairy tale”:

“I woke up one morning a couple of years ago and was like, ‘Well, I was never born beautiful, but my wife is,’ and I wondered what it had been like going through life with that reality. I came up with the idea to do a horror film about beauty, not to criticize it or to attack it, but because beauty is a very complex subject. Everyone has an opinion about it.”

Everyone had an opinion about The Neon Demon too, with some of the audience at Cannes booing it and the rest giving it a standing ovation. You can make up your own mind – it’s an Amazon original, so you should be able to find it quite easily wherever you are in the world. It is a beautiful film, the acting is superb, the direction is assured and precise. The horror is not so much from the gore, as the scenes of young girls being treated as meat. But that is exactly the point.

The French philosopher Jacques Derrida spoke of what he called “carnivorous sacrifice”:

“The establishment of man’s privileged position requires the sacrifice and devouring of animals.”

The animals we sacrifice and devour are little more than infants – chickens for example are slaughtered at seven weeks of age. Pigs are killed at six months (less if they run into Refn, apparently). We no more eat old animals than photographers seek out old models. Remember Curtis’ line in Snow Piercer:

“I know what people taste like. I know that babies taste best.”

Or the words of John Jacques Rousseau:

The animals you eat are not those who devour others; you do not eat the carnivorous beasts, you take them as your pattern. You only hunger after sweet and gentle creatures who harm no one, which follow you, serve you, and are devoured by you as the reward of their service.

Cannibalism is no more or less than the sacrifice and devouring of animals – in this case, the Great Ape known as Homo sapiens. As voracious consumerism and greed extends its reach, to plunder the entire planet, the distinction between us and the other animals seems increasingly to evaporate.

Cannibalism news July 2021: FRENCH POLICE SHOOT SUSPECTED CANNIBAL AFTER BOY’S HEAD FOUND IN BUCKET

French police fatally shot a 32-year-old man suspected of cannibalism on Monday morning (July 19) following the discovery of the decapitated corpse and partially consumed head of a 13-year-old boy.

Police found the remains on Sunday in an apartment in the southern France town of Tarascon, a town between Avignon and Arles.

Public prosecutor Laurent Gumbau told Agence France-Presse that strips of flesh had been ripped from a shoulder, sparking suspicions of cannibalism.

“The body found may be that of the minor… However, it was impossible at the current time to confirm the hypothesis of anthropophagy (cannibalism).” 

The boy disappeared on his way from his foster home in Marseille, about 60 miles away, to see his mother in Tarascon.

Late Sunday night, a neighbour called police and reported seeing a body in a garbage bag. A man, who had previous convictions for acts of violence, fled from his apartment when police arrived by jumping over rooftops, neighbours told the news outlet. Three hours later police found the man and shot him dead, the prosecutor said, adding that the suspect did not appear to have been armed at the time of his death, and had not been formally identified as the killer.

In his apartment, the Bouches-du-Rhône police discovered a dead body in the kitchen, but its right arm and head were missing. The head was later found in a bucket in the bathroom and, according to Le Figaro, had been partially eaten. Satanic cult objects were also found in the home.

Homicide has been with us since the first apeman lifted a bone to beat a rival to death (or actually well before that, using teeth and claws). It is likely that the victor in those early spats would have been loath to waste the resulting meaty corpse.

2001: A Space Odyssey

Accounts of cannibalism still seem to focus on the primitive, the ‘savage’ cannibals eating the unwary missionary who stumbles upon their village, even though there is little evidence that such events ever happened. But in recent years, cannibalism has increasingly been found within our ‘civilised’ cities and towns. 2020 was a big year for cannibalism. So far in 2021, we have had THE OKLAHOMA CANNIBAL in the US and the MEXICAN CANNIBAL who allegedly killed and ate some thirty women. In South Africa at the moment, deadly rioting has led to food shortages that, according to one community leader, has led people to consider cannibalism. Then we have the whole Armie Hammer uproar. These cases, like the one in France, are usually put down to psychotic deviance, the psychological equivalent of a mystified shrug. But economics and politics play their parts too, as does a loss of respect – treating humans as animals (which of course we are) emanates from treating animals as morally valueless, as mere commodities.

Could it be that a toxic mixture of urban loneliness and rampant consumerism, particularly of animal bodies, together with the stripping of humans of their formerly assumed metaphysical superiority to other animals, is leading the murderer to the same conclusion chosen by our pre-sapien ancestors: why waste the meat?

Halloween display in Ukrainian butcher shop window

BLOODY HELL (Alister Grierson, 2020)

This is a ripsnorter of a thriller, and full of surprises. Defiantly internationalist, the film is an Australian-British action/horror film directed by Alister Grierson (Kokoda, Sanctum, Tiger) and written by Robert Benjamin. It is set in a basement in Helsinki Finland with scenes in Boise, Idaho, and features mostly Australian and New Zealand actors, with American or Finnish accents and dialogue as necessary. It was made on the Gold Coast in Queensland (as many blockbusters have been recently).

The main characters are both personas of Rex (Ben O’Toole – Hacksaw Ridge, Detroit, The Water Diviner).  O’Toole is superb (imagine a combination of Bruce Willis and Robert Downey Jr) in two roles: both the physical Rex and his inner voice, the part of him (and all of us) which commentates his life and ordeals, screams abuse, even when pretending to be calm and collected or even unconscious, and debates the best responses, rational or emotional, to every aspect of what is going on around him. O’Toole called this Rex his character’s “conscience”, but it’s not a Freudian split between an ego and a superego (or id) – it is more nuanced, and the invisible Rex (invisible to other characters – the audience and physical Rex can see and hear him) argues about practical and ethical issues all the time, sometimes compassionate, sometimes sneering and violent. That inner voice, as we all know, is exhausting.

Rex and his inner voice are off to Finland. Why? Well, Rex was in a bank, chatting to a teller he fancied, when a gang of heavily armed men came storming in and violently robbed both the bank and the customers. Rex, ex-military, was able to take on the gang and kill them all, but the last one was ready to surrender when invisible Rex screamed:

As the last robber collapsed, dickless, his gun went off, killing an innocent teller who had been hiding in a cupboard. Rex became a media sensation, with half the population calling him a hero, and the rest a “psycho twat”, and a plea bargain saw him in jail for eight years for causing the teller’s death, leading to his decision to emigrate, on his release. In a flashback to his court case, Rex is asked why he shot the bank robber in that particular spot.

“I wanted him down… and I didn’t want him to reproduce… win – win!”

Why Finland? Well, he shot spitballs at a world map in his jail cell, and fate led him to that country. Where, unfortunately, a family of cannibals awaited him, and he wakes up, barely twenty minutes into the film, hanging by his wrists from a water pipe in a dark basement.

With the classic trope of cannibal films, used so well in Texas Chain Saw Massacre – the extreme close-up.

He is missing a leg, blood dripping from the stump, but his inner Rex is still fine and walking around, and furious at their precarious situation. Our imaginary self, after all, is as threatened by our mortality as we are.

It is clear to us, the audience, that Rex’s body parts are a living larder, although it takes the Rexs a bit longer to figure out why his leg is missing.

“Black market limb trade… is that a thing? I’m pretty sure there’s a niche there.”

It’s actually a very funny film – the dialogue between the two Rexs and even some of the murderous Finns is often hilarious. Rex pulls himself up to the huge knot to try to free himself with his teeth, observing that, short of one leg,

Rex’s love interest is Alia (Meg Fraser – Leech) the daughter, who has spent her life trying to escape her family.

Rex offers to “rescue” her (which considering his position is ambitious), and tells her,

“If we get out of here, I’ll tell you the whole story over dinner. I’ll even pay, huh?”

Now Rex has to dump on vegans to the girl whose family is upstairs eating the meat of his right leg; the family are definitely not vegans, nor can they see anything much wrong in giving their oldest son his preferred meat species. Alia explains that her older brother Pati is “the oldest and the hungriest”. Like Rex, he certainly does like a bit of meat, but, like the Wendigo, there is only one source that will satisfy him. Many omnivores will eat any meat except human. Pati will eat any meat as long as it’s human. As omnis like to say “it’s a personal choice.”

“He’s the reason you’re here. And very soon, there will be nothing left of you.”

Cannibal Studies is usually concerned with the anthropological or metaphorical aspects of the act – exposing the outsider as uncivilised, or else dripping irony about our own rapacious appetites. This film manages to do both, as Rex rants about the Finnish family, and how he wants to be back in the good ol’ USA,

Which is ironic, because if you check the “Cannibal News” category on this blog, you will see that a goodly proportion of modern cases of cannibalism occur in the good ol’ USA (and none in Finland*). The USA is the apotheosis of consumer societies where, just like Alia’s brother,

The rest of the film concerns Rex’s attempts to escape – not easy when one leg is gone and one of the family members has just tried to saw off the second one. You’ll have to see it to find out how that goes. It’s well worth it. Film critic Rob Hunter sums it up nicely:

“It’s a serious tale of survival encased in blackly comic humor, maliciously creepy twins, and the most sweetly sensual stump-washing scene you’ve ever had the pleasure of witnessing.”

The movie premiered in Australia on October 8, 2020, and in the United States a day later at the Nightstream Film Festival. It has a 91% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes, with comments like “blissfully, absurdly over-the-top, but in a twistedly charming way”.

This is a blackly humorous horror-thriller, and is quite brilliantly executed by Alister Grierson, particularly as the hero, normally the action figure of such stories, is tied to the ceiling and missing a leg for most of the film. You might think that would slow down the pace, but director Grierson keeps it tearing along. I usually stop and start when reviewing a movie, but this one I gulped down in one sitting, then came back for details.

As for the lead actor, Ben O’Toole, he seems to have got a taste for the cannibal stories. He said in an interview that he’d like to play Titus Andronicus, who was William Shakespeare’s favourite cannibal.

Let’s not forget, too, how much cannibalistic symbolism is involved in sex, such as “I could eat you up” as well as various foodie words for cunnilingus and felatio. And of course the French (or Finnish) kiss, when Rex and Alia finally escape.

And just to prove other people like puns too, here is the last frame of the film.

* Actually, there is a case of Finnish cannibalism – Jarno Elg, a supposed Satanist, who was sentenced to life imprisonment in 1998 for murdering a 23-year-old man, eating some of the body parts and inciting some friends to participate in a ritual that included torturing the victim while listening to songs from The Cainian Chronicle album by the Norwegian black metal band Ancient. Elg was granted parole in 2014.

The movie is available at Amazon.

   

“There must be a bit of your husband, too” – WEEKEND (Jean-Luc Godard, 1967)

Godard’s Weekend came out in 1967, and has maintained its rage against bourgeois society for over fifty years. From the perspective of Cannibal Studies, it has everything. Cannibal movies are about appetite and power and what, if anything, can counter those fundamental forces of nature. Weekend is about appetite (rampant consumerism), class struggle, and of course the revolution. All are treated as deadly serious and hilariously funny.

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Godard’s previous movie in 1967, La Chinoise, was explicitly Marxist, but Weekend is more anarchist in tone; no one escapes unskewered from Godard’s piercing insight into the absurdity of social interactions. There are no heroes or even sympathetic characters – humanity is depicted as greedy, corrupt and narcissistic.

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Corinne (Mireille Darc) and Roland (Jean Yanne) are in the car, heading to Corinne’s mother’s home, where they intend to either cheat her or kill her. The road is lined with gridlocked traffic and horrendous car accidents filled with corpses, all of which they ignore.

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Both are also planning to cheat on each other, once they get the money. Greed, corruption, influence are their only motivations, and the other motorists are beneath their notice, except when they need clothes, which they shamelessly loot from the wrecks. Anyone who stops them is liable to feel their teeth.

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Only when their own car crashes does Corinne express any emotion.

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They spend days on the road with only the clothes they wear and an apparently bottomless packet of cigarettes, and come across a range of characters, including the Jacobin leader Louis Antoine de Saint-Just and Emily Bronte, whom they set alight, enraged that she is just an imaginary character.

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After killing the mother and getting the fortune, they are kidnapped by group of revolutionaries called the Seine-et-Oise Liberation Front, who enthusiastically rape and eat their captives.

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Godard’s vision of the modern guerilla army skirmishing in the outskirts of the cities was a perceptive prophesy of what would a few years later appear as the Red Brigade and the Weathermen. But this group are also cannibals, which allowed me the pleasure of re-watching, for this blog, a movie that still perturbs me some fifty years after I first saw it. The cannibalism of course points backwards to the history of revolutionary betrayal – the Terror of the French Revolution that gobbled up everyone from Danton to Robespierre, the swallowing up of the Bolsheviks by Stalin, and the Chinese Cultural Revolution, in which cannibalism was used as a political weapon. Capitalism is about consumption, but so, too often, are the alternatives.

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In Godard’s absurdist world, we’re either being eaten by the cannibals, or joining them.

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Next week: Hannibal Lecter putting aside childish things, in Hannibal Rising.