Eat the imperialists: HOW TASTY WAS MY LITTLE FRENCHMAN (Como Era Gostoso o Meu Francês) – Nelson Pereira dos Santos, 1971

Let’s get this out of the way – there is nudity. Lots of it and throughout the movie. Well, it’s set in pre-colonial Brazil, and the Indigenous peoples did not bother with a lot of clothes, so it’s historically accurate. To ensure authenticity, the actors and the crew were all naked, so that nudity would become natural. If that bothers you, please read the blog but skip the movie.

While it was refreshingly authentic, the nudity was also a problem. First, because the authenticity is somewhat diminished, as The New York Times critic pointed out, by the fact that the natives are “middle-class white Brazilians… stripped down and reddened up for the occasion”. Secondly, the film was refused entry to the Cannes Film Festival because of all the swinging dicks. In Brazil, the censors were eventually persuaded that the natives indeed did walk around naked, but remained vehemently opposed to the nude Frenchman, a telling comment on the racist distinction that the film was intending to expose.

So, the plot in a nutshell: the French and the Portuguese are fighting to control the rich lands of South America. Each has allied with local tribes who are at constant war with each other, often involving (so the European narrative goes) capturing and eating each other’s warriors.  The Tupinambás are allied with the French, while the Tupiniquins are allied with the Portuguese. The Frenchman of the title escapes his own command, is captured by the Portuguese, and is then captured by the Tupinambás, who are allies of the French, but believe him to be Portuguese, so intend to eat him. Got all that? – there will be a test.

Tupi custom involved bringing the captive into the community, feeding and homing him, and even finding him a wife, then eventually killing him in a ceremony that will allow them to capture his essence, bravery, speed, and so on.

This wide-spread belief about the Tupi comes from a European who was captured but then escaped in 1554, came back to Europe and wrote a book. His name was Hans Staden, and he was actually a German who was trying to get to India. But since it was the French who were invading South America at the time, the director changed his nationality.

De Bry’s engravings of Tupi cannibalism were “eaten up” by the Europeans.

Tupi cannibalism has a whole literature explaining it or denying it – William Arens claimed the ‘evidence’ was mostly based on Staden’s account, which contained several contradictions, and had been continually retold as if it had happened to new re-tellers. Other anthropologists such as Rene Girard explained Tupi cannibalism as a seamless explanation for the way culture and religion have evolved. The universal violence of the human species is redirected toward the outsider, who is taken into the tribe, but remains foreign enough to be killed as a scapegoat, to release the social pressure that would lead to endless internal revenge feuds. For many, Jesus became the ultimate scapegoat under this theory, even to the extent of insisting that his followers eat and drink wine and bread transubstantiated into his “blood and body” in the Eucharist ritual.

For my flesh is meat indeed, and my blood is drink indeed.

John 6:55

The Brazilian anthropologist Eduardo Viveiros de Castro proposed a ‘post-structural anthropology’ in his book Cannibal Metaphysics. De Castro sought to ‘decolonise’ anthropology by challenging the increasingly familiar view that it was ‘exoticist and primitivist from birth’, denying that cannibalism even existed, and so transferred the conquered peoples from the cannibalistic villains of the West into mere fictions of colonialism. Arguing that the ‘Other’ is just like us is to deny any separate identity and to return the focus of anthropology to that which interests us: ourselves. Rather than deny the existence of cannibalism, which allows a reclassification of the Amerindian peoples as like the colonialists, de Castro examines the details of Tupinamba cannibalism, which was ‘a very elaborate system for the capture, execution, and ceremonial consumption of their enemies’. This alternative view of Amerindian culture rejects the automatic assumption of the repugnance of cannibalism, which serves to either confront it or deny its existence.

Well, that’s pretty much where this film planned to go. Pereira dos Santos challenges the Eurocentric perspective which insists on a superior civilisation overcoming a primitive one. It is true that Tupi civilisation was destroyed by the slavery, smallpox and slaughter of the Portuguese who, the film tells us at the end, also wiped out their allies the Tupiniquins. The Tupi peoples are now a remnant, confined to small areas and currently being decimated by COVID-19.

But the chief, in the killing ceremony which promises the Frenchman’s body parts to his relatives (his wife will get his neck), tells the story as a mirror image:

“I am here to kill you. Because your people have killed many of ours, and eaten them.”

So the film asks: who were/are the cannibals? It does not fully succeed in telling this story, because the audience gets involved with the Frenchman’s story, instead of his captors. Pereira dos Santos lamented that the public:

“…identified with the French, with the coloniser. All spectators lamented the death of the hero. They did not understand that the hero was the indigenous, not the white, so much were they influenced by the adventures of John Wayne.”

Nonetheless, the binary of the colonised and the powerless occupied victims is so deeply embedded in our cultural stories that it is refreshing to see this mirror image version, where the indigenous win the battle, if not the war.

“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.

Loving and biting: “TROUBLE EVERY DAY” (Denis, 2001)

Trouble Every Day (its real title, not a translation from French) is a love letter from director Claire Denis to Paris, the ‘city of love’. It opens with some serious French kissing and there is a lot of oral action during the film – kissing, licking, biting, eating – they are all variations on the theme of seeking pleasure through oral connection.

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Variety described the film as “”over-long, under-written and needlessly obscure” but that is not uncommon in American reviews of French films. It lingers on images, particularly Paris, sometimes beautiful, sometimes grey and seedy, sometimes both, the grunge lit by the sunset.

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Like any big city, Paris is a place to seek love, make love, hide, sometimes get killed (and sometimes even eaten). Certainly the city (not just Paris) is famous for eating up and spitting out its residents, at least on a metaphoric level. And sex, particularly in Paris it seems, tends to be a mixture of tenderness and extreme violence.

The plot is simple and immune to spoilers – people are obviously going to get eaten (it happens a lot, particularly on movies reviewed on this cannibal blog) and that action starts pretty much right away. Coré (Béatrice Dalle) lures men with the promise of sex, then tears them to pieces and eats them. Léo (Alex Descas) loves her, protects her, buries the bodies, cleans her up, kisses her and then locks her in her room when he goes to work. But she always escapes (helps that she has keys and electric saws hidden strategically around the room).

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When a couple of neighbours take his absence as an opportunity to break in, well, you can guess the rest.

Shane (Vincent Gallo) and June (Tricia Vessey) arrive in Paris for their honeymoon, but Shane has other images filling his mind, and we glimpse some of them even as he sits, desolate, in the plane’s toilet, not even bothering to have a wee (come on – you know how hard it is to get a turn in one of those?)

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Shane is seriously creepy and, as he stares down at June in their Paris hotel, we find that his loving is also not without teeth.

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Turns out he knew Leo and Coré, worked with them on bioprospection research, looking for plants that would cure nervous diseases, mental diseases and problems of libido. Think there is any money in that lot? But Leo was impatient with their caution, wanted to test it on humans. And of course, that experiment backfired. Some plants heal mental diseases and libido, others turn you into cannibals. C’est la vie.

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But the plot is not so important. Denis is telling us that love, or at least sex, is about touch, communion, intimacy. And what is more intimate than not just kissing and biting your partner, but swallowing, incorporating them? The definition of marriage in the Bible is “they shall become one flesh”. Cannibalism is the ultimate expression of that – once the blood is wiped off, the lovers have indeed become one flesh.

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The movie got 50% on Rotten Tomatoes website, so no one can quite make up their mind. I liked (although disagreed with) the review in the Seattle Times:

“I’m not sure these words have ever been together in the same sentence: This erotic cannibal movie is boring.”

The film is probably a lot more disturbing on the big screen, as Denis glories in extreme close-ups, particularly of touching, kissing, licking, bleeding, as well as lingering on areas of the body that usually don’t make it into Hollywood films (but usually do in French films). Luckily, having sat through a guy having his tongue ripped out and a hotel maid being raped and killed, there is at least, at the end, a puppy.

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Meating the future: “DELICATESSEN” (Caro & Jeunet, 1991)

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Delicatessen is a classic French black comedy set in a post-apocalyptic village where seeds and grains are the exchange currency. The butcher advertises for handy-men in a journal called Hard Times and then slaughters the applicants and sells their meat to his weird tenants, who have surrealistic activities: a man who lives in a flooded room full of frogs and snails, a woman who constantly fails at suicide attempts so involved they would be worthy of Wile E Coyote, and two brothers who manufacture mooing machines for no apparent reason.

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The trailer for Delicatessen is a scene from the early part of the film, where the butcher, Clapet (Jean-Claude Dreyfus) is having sex with a woman (Karin Viard) who seems to be as much captive as partner.

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As his lustful tempo, played out on the squeaky bedsprings, increases in speed, so do the activities of all the tenants: the butcher sets the pace in this world (and by implication in our world too).

Into this house of horrors comes a gentle (vegetarian) clown, Louison (Dominique Pinon), who has left the circus after his partner, Doctor Livingstone, was eaten.

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Livingstone, it turns out, was a chimp, but his sorrow is no less real for that.

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The butcher’s daughter, Julie (Marie-Laure Dougnac) falls in love with him and tries to warn him of his likely fate.

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Julie dreams about the upcoming butchery of Louison, and decides to save him. To do this, she has to seek the help of the Troglodistes, an underground group who are vegetarian and hate the “surfacers”, who hunt them. Their motivation is the 30 bags of corn in her father’s house. Her motivation: love. Her father’s: meat. Can there be a more French theme? She returns to find:

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But he’s a clown – this is a new act he is rehearsing.

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Since Louison did not appear on the steps last night, where the killings are done, the butcher is instead selling bits of the mother of one of the tenants. As the tenant leaves the butcher, a neat packet of her mother’s flesh under her arm, she says:

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“We’ll do that now” her husband assures her.

Look, none of it makes any sense, but that’s to be expected. All we can conclude is that voracious appetite (of which cannibalism is the highest form) doesn’t pay.

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And love always triumphs…

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… even if it’s underwater.

The director Marc Caro’s cameo (in goggles).

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Rotten Tomatoes currently gives Delicatessen an impressive 89% “fresh”. The Washington Post called Delicatessen “a tasteless variation on Sweeney Todd set geographically near the border of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil” while Unsung Films said it was “reminiscent of Amélie – and …much braver”. Amélie was the director Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s 2001 masterpiece.

Empire summed up Delicatessen as “simply essential viewing for vegetarians”.

Cannibalism films often have that effect.

 

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