Cannibalism as female empowerment: JENNIFER’S BODY (Karyn Kusama, 2009)

Jennifer’s Body is classified as a comedy, even though it’s rated R for sexuality, bloody violence, language and drug use. Well, all those things can be funny. Even cannibalism is sometimes the butt of jokes (well, quite often), and a lot of people get eaten in this movie.

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The story does not start with Jennifer (Megan Fox) but with her nerdy bestie Needy (Amanda Seyfried), “short” for Anita, although no one calls her that. Needy is revealed to be an ultra-violent resident of an asylum.

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The rest is flashback. Jennifer is the popular girl, the sexy girl, the one no one can believe is friends with the boring Needy, but she is bored in their little town of – wait for it – Devil’s Kettle. Jennifer wants to get off with the big city band in town, Low Shoulder. At their gig, Needy hears them arguing about whether Jennifer is a virgin, and leaps to her friends defence

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Jennifer later tells her that’s not even close to the truth.

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Now, when men are looking for virgins, there are only two possible explanations, depending on whether they are of a metaphysical bent, and these guys are very bent. So telling them Jennifer fits their shopping list turns out to be a very bad idea. Jen gets in the band’s truck as the venue burns down. Needy is distraught.

But she meant well. And later that night, here’s Jen, looking quite sanguine, in both sense of the word.

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Jennifer has been a virgin sacrifice to a demonic force, which promised greatness to the band. However, not being a virgin (even backdoor) means that the sacrifice, instead of killing her, left her possessed by the demon, a succubus.

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Yeah, OK, but the audience needs a good reason for a woman to start eating her dates (even if, after 100+ blogs, you and I could think of a dozen good ones). So she is possessed, and eating people. When she’s hungry, she’s weak and unhealthy, but when she’s fed (and cleaned up) she’s the life, or undeath, of the party.

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This is a really good film, with all the ingredients of greatness: the cast are excellent, the director, Karyn Kusama, is in her element (she made Destroyer with Nicole Kidman recently) and it was written by Diablo Cody, fresh from the triumph of Juno, for which she won an Oscar for best original screenplay. But the film bombed at the box-office, the accepted wisdom in those days being that successful films were made exclusively for 14-year-old (white) boys. This one wasn’t, it was about strong and often violent women, and has been gathering a cult following in the decade since its release.

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There have been many horror movies about women, often (e.g. Carrie or Teeth) involving revenge for something done to them. This fits with the cultural expectation that men will be the aggressors and the monsters, and from this fetid swamp arose the slasher movies, including most cannibal films. Jennifer herself has been sexualised by most of the men and boys who appears in the plot. She is kidnapped and murdered by the band, despite begging for mercy.

But Jennifer is not seeking revenge on the band – that will (but not until the credits) be Needy’s job.

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Jennifer is a monster for all the males who have objectified her.

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The film plays with the assumptions about male power and appetite. The boys Jennifer eats are gentle and considerate, not violent or aggressive – the huge line-backer she tears apart after her return is seen first crying for his friend, who died in the fire.

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Everyone assumes, of course, that his killer is male.

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But the body when found is being eaten by a gentle fawn.

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Despite widespread cultural beliefs, female monsters are not rarities.  Earliest mythology tells of the Medusa, the sight of whom “made the spectator stiff with terror” (much to Freud’s amusement) and even earlier, there are claims that Lilith, Adam’s ex before he met up with Eve, was, or became, a succubus. Jennifer is an ideal example of what film scholar Barbara Creed calls “The Monstrous-Feminine”, a concept of monstrosity that depicts not a female version of male monsters, but a cultural force defined by male fears about the feminine. These fears include being castrated (Freud’s favourite explanation), as well as confronting “the monstrous womb” – a terrifying image of a “black hole which threatens to reabsorb what it once birthed” (Creed, The Monstrous-Feminine, p. 27). As the writer, Diablo Cody, says, it is an unashamedly feminist horror movie.

Jennifer’s Body was before it’s time. In an article explaining the woeful critical reaction to the film, Vice summed up:

‘Jennifer’s Body’ Would Kill if It Came Out Today

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Rage and appetite: SKIN AND BONES S1E08 of “Fear Itself” (Larry Fessenden, 2008)

Fear Itself was an American horror/suspense anthology television series shot in Canada. It began airing on June 5, 2008.

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Look, it’s a TV video nasty, but the cast is great, and it features a Wendigo, a figure made famous in Hannibal and the movie Ravenous.

The Wendigo (sometimes called Wetigo) is a figure from North American Algonquin folklore. He is a mythical figure – giant, fierce and cannibalistic. He gathers strength from feeding on human flesh, but the flesh makes him grow larger, and so his appetite can never be satisfied. He is sometimes protective, and sometimes a figure of revenge (Cartman may have been taken over by a Wendigo in last week’s blog!) In this story, the Wendigo is “the spirit of the lonely places” and is all about revenge. The Wendigo gets inside people who are weak, hungry, and filled with rage.

We know what’s going to happen. So does the token wise old Native American, Eddie Bear (Gordon Tootoosis) who knows all about Wendigos, as did Joseph Runningfox in Ravenous. Of course, no one is interested in metaphysical explanations from those who might understand the land, so it just escalates from there.

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“Don’t matter what you call it. It’s a madness, it’s fierce, it’s a hunger that can’t be satisfied. It’s an anger that can’t be settled. It’s the Wendigo!”

Grady (Doug Jones from Pan’s Labyrinth, Hellboy II and Star Trek Discovery) has a ranch but knows nothing about living off the land. His brother Rowdy (John Pyper-Ferguson) is running the ranch, and is clearly making out with his wife Elena (Molly Hagan). There are two children (Cole Heppell and Brett Dier, who you might recognise as Michael from Jane the Virgin).

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The kids challenge Rowdy with the usual line “You’re not our father!” so of course we know he must be. The Wendigo has taken over Grady while he was on a hunting trip (with Chuck and Billy who have, you know, disappeared: down the hatch) and when Grady stumbles back to the ranch, he is skinny, covered in frostbite, and remarkably creepy. And hungry. So hungry, he could eat a horse (and does).

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But he certainly doesn’t want Elena’s soup. When she feels his forehead, he licks her arm, and mutters, “tastes good!” Soon he is feeling fine. And still hungry. Soon it’s Rowdy’s turn to be the family meal. He makes Elena cut up and cook and then eat his brother. OK, he’s possessed by a Wendigo, but it’s still cannibalism in my book.

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CUT IT UP AND COOK IT! …it’s just meat.

Director Larry Fessenden had made an earlier Wendigo movie called, well, Wendigo, which got a respectable 60% on Rotten Tomatoes.

If you want to know what happens in this one (and you can really sort of guess), you can watch the whole episode on Youtube.

It’s worth watching, if only for Doug Jones’ performance as the Wendigo.

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“I could feel a rage growing up inside me. A rage that would not let me die!”

Sounds like an allegory of twenty-first century politics.

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“You’re only as good as you taste”, Cannibal Christmas

I was hoping to review Cannibal Claus, for those of you reading blogs on Christmas day (and a fine way to spend the day it is to be sure). No sign of it in the usual sources, but since IMDB says it was made with the impressive budget of $1,200, it may not be widely available. Let me know if you find it.

There’s quite a funny review of it here.

 

So…

If you celebrate Christmas, have a merry one, and think about who you put in the fridge.

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Awkward family photos

 

Cannibalism rocks! THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW (Jim Sharman, 1975)

This movie was a cultural phenomenon. The critics hated it; the fans loved it. More and more viewers kept turning up to midnight showings, dressing the part, dancing the dances, singing the songs. It remains the longest running theatrical release in history, because somewhere a cinema will have it on, at midnight, tonight.

Shot in the style of Hammer Horror films, it is an affectionate satire on the science fiction and horror films that developed in the 1930s, and never went away. There are a mix of tropes, the main ones being the mad scientist (based on Frankenstein) creating life in his lab, and an innocent young couple knocking on the door of a spooky old house after their car breaks down. They are clean-cut Brad and Janet from middle-America town Denton (Barry Bostwick and the brilliant Susan Sarandon).

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They find themselves in the midst of Dionysian scenes of rock, dancing and sex, presided over by Dr. Frank-N-Furter (Tim Curry, who later played Pennywise), a self-proclaimed “sweet transvestite from Transsexual, Transylvania”. How could this not be popular?

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So why is this movie on a cannibal blog? Oh right, EDDIE (Meat Loaf). Some saw Eddie as representing old-time Rock & Roll, being annihilated by Glam Rock, with its emphasis on costumes and makeup. I prefer to speculate that the movie glimpsed the future, say the end of the 2010s. If Frank is alternative, iconoclastic culture, Eddie is one of the basket of deplorables, crashing the party on a motorbike, leather clad and bleeding, part of his brain removed to make the new creature, and preaching the joys of cis-masculinist rock and roll. His knuckles are tattooed “love” and “hate”. We are told that all Eddie wanted

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Until Frank takes to him with a pickaxe.

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So, what happens to dead Eddie? Well, that’s how we ended up on the cannibal blog. The narrator (Charles Gray, a regular Bond villain) announces what could almost be the mission statement of cannibal studies

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Frank is carving a roast, with an electric knife (anyone remember them?). When the subject of Eddie comes up, he says

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Just in case there was any doubt, Frank pulls off the tablecloth, revealing the rest of Eddie, inlaid in the table

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The narrator sums up

“Just a few hours after announcing their engagement, Brad and Janet had both tasted forbidden fruit”

Taboos are the sweetest fruit. Brad and Janet have engaged in debauched sex and cannibalism – two areas where humans imagine themselves demarcated from other animals. In fact, the 2016 remake of this film by Fox found the cannibalism scene a bit rich for network television, and when the tablecloth is removed, Eddie is there, dead, but intact and fully dressed.

In our strange moral system, murder is fine, but cannibalism is still the final frontier. And it seems to be a universal moral imperative – Frank’s flunkies depose him and kill him because

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That’s what makes cannibal studies so fascinating.

Anyway, turns out that Frank and his staff are aliens from the planet of Transexual in the galaxy of Transylvania, and the castle is their spaceship. The humans are left crawling in the dust and smoke after the takeoff, and the narrator tells us

“And crawling on the planet’s face, some insects called the human race.
Lost in time and lost in space. And meaning.”

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Next week: ‘HANNIBAL’ Season 3 Episode 4, ‘Aperitivo’.

 

The vampire of Sacramento: “RAMPAGE” (Friedkin, 1987)

Rampage is a 1987 film from William Friedkin, the director of The French Connection (1971) and The Exorcist (1973). It is based on the case of RICHARD CHASE, an American serial killer who murdered six people in the span of a month in December/January 1977-78. He was nicknamed “The Vampire of Sacramento” because he drank his victims’ blood and cannibalized their remains. In this version, the victims have been altered, as has the killer, who is now named Charlie Reece (Alex McArthur). Charlie is presented as the nice, helpful boy-next door. He’d mow your lawn, or bring in your shopping.

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Then maybe kill you and drink your blood.

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The film wastes no time on showing Charlie getting hungry, killing three people who appear to be chosen at random, and then revealing his self-perception, as a caged tiger.

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The film is mostly about the keen young prosecutor, Anthony Fraser (Michael Biehn). Fraser is caring, empathetic, liberal, an opponent of capital punishment, until he comes across this case.

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“The women’s bodies were cut open to get at the organs… Some of the organs were removed.”

There’s also a glass that has been filled with blood, and drained.

Another family are burying their dog. They know Charlie poisoned the dog, and report him to the police. Then Charlie comes visiting. The mother is cut up like the others and sexually assaulted, the child has vanished.

Charlie is quickly arrested, and we see his cellar, full of body parts, weapons and Nazi regalia. His mother tells his lawyer about how Charlie had to witness domestic violence at a very young age. Charlie tells his psychiatrist about hearing Satan on the radio, telling him to kill people, and taking his blood from him when he disobeys. He describes shooting the little boy so he could suck his blood, then putting him in a trash can.

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All the pieces are there for an insanity plea. The psychiatrists agree to say he was a paranoid schizophrenic who believed his blood was poisoned and his heart failing.

At the trial, we hear how normal Charlie was – his friends talk of his reasoned non-violence, his scout master says he was a good boy, his steady girl tells how thoughtful he was. Then a nurse tells of finding his diary, listing all the dogs, cats and rabbits he had killed. The prosecution’s psychiatrist is asked “did he know he was killing living human beings?”

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That was the point. That was why he did it. He claims he has a belief that his body is failing and infected and he’s convinced himself that someone else’s blood will repair him. He had to kill them to get the blood.

In other words, he was psychotic, but he knew what he was doing at all times, and is therefore legally sane.

As the movie bogs irretrievably down in legal and psychiatric argument, Charlie livens it up as he escapes (something Chase did not do), kills the guards and then invades a church, killing the priest and drinking his blood.

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Back in court, the defence’s psychiatrist says Charlie was driven by his sickness and had no free will. He asks

What makes a respectable young man turn into a killer?

After he is found guilty, the judge orders a PET scan, a new technology that scans the brain.

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“We’re looking at a computer enhanced image of the chemistry of the brain. And what we’re seeing is a picture of madness.”

But it’s too late; in the original version of the film at least, Charlie’s mom has smuggled him pills, and he kills himself.

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Rampage was completed in 1987, just in time for DEG, the production company, to go bankrupt. It was not released in the US for the next five years, and was finally released, with a different ending, in 1992 by the Weinstein company. In that version, he is sent to a state mental hospital, and writes to a man whose wife and child he has killed, asking him to visit. A final title card reveals that Reece is scheduled for a parole hearing in six months. He will probably kill again. While the original version quibbled with the idea of capital punishment, the revised version reinforced the necessity of putting him down. European versions usually show the original ending, in which Charlie commits suicide, and the DA regrets fighting for the death penalty.

Basically, this movie is like a long episode of CSI or SVU, and in fact there is an episode of CSI called “Justice Is Served” which is also based on Chase’s murders. The director, Friedkin, called it “among the lowest points in my career.” The film scored what could charitably be called a modest 44% on Rotten Tomatoes. With only nine reviews, you might call it ignored rather than despised. The script is clunky and some of the acting is wooden, although Alex McArthur as the killer is great, looking a bit like a (more) demented John Travolta. The soundtrack is by the wonderful Sergio Leone, who wrote over 400 movie scores, including The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Roger Ebert, the doyen of movie critics, wrote, “This is not a movie about murder so much as a movie about insanity”.

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The real Richard Chase

Well, yes – Chase was, by the age of ten, exhibiting evidence of all three parts of the Macdonald triad: bed-wetting, arson, and cruelty to animals, considered as indicators of future violent tendencies.

Rampage is a classic psychogenic cannibalism story. Like Jeffrey Dahmer or Albert Fish, we can hate what Charlie did and yet not quite blame him for it – he is driven by what we consider wrong beliefs, which cause him to ignore the sanctity of human life. Yet how sacred is human life, in a world in which thousands of children die of malnutrition every day while their government exports grain to the West to feed pigs and chickens? Charlie believes he needs blood due to an imaginary illness, just as so many people are convinced they need to eat animal flesh. He starts on dogs, cats and rabbits and graduates to humans. To the cannibal, we are just one more species on the shopping list: if it’s OK to eat Fido, it must be OK to eat the neighbours. There is a logic there, which the meat industry would much rather you ignore.

 

Next week = some light cannibal relief with the new comedy CORPORATE ANIMALS

“Every family has a secret recipe” – WE ARE WHAT WE ARE (Somos lo que hay), Grau, 2010.

This Mexican film (in Spanish) has it all when it comes to Cannibal Studies. When we discuss cannibalism, we think of sacrificial rituals, or people starving, or maybe just psychogenic appetites – some inner appetite that can only be satiated with human flesh. In most cannibal films, the cannibals are minor personalities, indistinct threats to the protagonist, not the main characters.

Welcome to We Are What We Are. A family of cannibals survive on human flesh, which is harvested by the father in bloody ritual ceremonies. When Dad dies, how are they to carry on? This is a family much like the one in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre: poor, disenfranchised, living on the edge of a consumer society from which they seem excluded.

Shot in Mexico city, the film reflects the struggle for survival in what some call a dog-eat-dog world, which of course is far more accurately a human-eat-human world, since we are often far nicer to dogs than to each other.

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Yep, and the boys, Alfredo and his younger, vicious brother Julián, have been evicted from their market stall because Dad didn’t pay the rent. He was a watchmaker by trade, and also a procurer of human flesh. Kept the family fed. No more though. The boys have to take over.

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Meanwhile, the coroner calls in the police. He has found something interesting in Dad’s stomach.

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The police are not interested though. They don’t bother with cold cases. Or hot ones either, apparently. The coroner tells them

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“In the reports, they blame the rats, but what about the two-legged kind?”

The boys head to the bridge, where the homeless children live. Self-service and easy to carry. This is not too far-fetched – there are many reports of death squads picking up kids and turning them over to drug cartels. But these boys have a different purpose, and they are not very good at it – the kids fight them off.

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A cannibal fail. Their mother is furious because they put the family at risk. “Next we start trembling, because we’re going to die.”

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Luckily, Sabina, the sister, has an idea.

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Mexico City is presented as corrupt, steamy and full of predators. No cannibal need go hungry, with the streets full of homeless children and prostitutes. But these aren’t any old hungry or depraved cannibals (although they’re getting there fast) – they have a ritual, and prostitutes apparently just won’t do, so Mum beats her to death with a shovel.

The poor and desperate usually stalk their own. The family has tried the outcast children under the bridge, then the vulnerable prostitutes; now Alfredo follows a group of young gays to an underground club and picks up a young man, who tells him, without irony,

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Alfredo is devastated by his first gay kiss. Well, we knew, he is so sensitive, while Julián is the one filled with carnivorous virility, and is quite straight, although incestuously drawn to his sister.

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All taboos are out on the table here, just like the prostitute’s corpse.

Mother and Julián take the prostitute’s body back to the street where they found her, and Mum abuses the girls for wanting to fuck her sons.

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On the hierarchy of monsters, she seems to consider cannibals rather higher than whores.

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Alfredo brings his new boyfriend home, for dinner, as it were. But Julián is not impressed. Nor is Mum, prompting Alfredo to ask why she hates him,

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Is he talking gay or cannibal? Maybe the status of outcast is enough. You are considered less than human, and so can be hunted, killed, eaten.

Mum has brought another bloke home, and they kill him after a struggle. But Alfredo’s boyfriend, Gustavo has escaped, and found the police:

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Meanwhile, the prostitutes are finding ways to motivate the cops to look into the murder of their colleague.

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Everyone is eating everyone in this world. Mum and sister are starting “the ritual” with the corpse, which involves candles, meat hooks and sharp knives. Juicy crunching sounds, as they pull the carcass apart. Look, if this troubles you, don’t ever go into a butcher shop – the actions and sounds are the same. Except for the munching on raw flesh bit maybe.

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OK, enough spoilers. It is a horror movie, so the rules say the monster must die, with the opportunity for resurrection (in case of a sequel). And in cannibal movies, there is the Wendigo factor: the bite of the cannibal turns the victim into a cannibal, much like the vampire legends.

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Except there really are cannibals in our world, and they are not always eating flesh. There are many ways of eating the outcast.

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The critics gave it 72% on Rotten Tomatoes, although the viewers were less generous.

The Los Angeles Times said it was

An unexpectedly rich exploration of family bonds, blood rituals and the oftentimes zombie-like desire to assume the roles proscribed to each of us.

The New York Post was similarly insightful

Grau’s script is intelligent, and it has something to say about family and social dysfunction. You just might want to skip meat for a few days.

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Next week: the season finale of HANNIBAL SEASON 2. “Everybody’s settling in for dinner”.

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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