Food for Thought

in 69th Cannes Film Festival

by Léo Soesanto

Cannibalism in Cannes Film Festival (aka “Cannes-ibalism”) is not exactly that fresh. Beatrice Dalle had a bite in Claire Denis’ Trouble Every Day (2001. Jorge Michel Grau’s Somos Lo Que Hay (2010) and its anthropophagous Mexican family had their table laid in Directors’ Fortnight — well, twice, with its US remake We Are What We Are (2013) by Jim Mickie in the same section. 2016 had it on the menu again with Bruno Dumont’s Slack Bay (Ma Loute) and Nicolas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon (both in competition), Julia Ducournau’s Raw (Grave) at Semaine de la Critique and we may add Michael O’Shea’s The Transfiguration at Un Certain Regard with its teenage vampire — in this case blood, but still liquid food. Even Steven Spielberg’s The BFG (out of competition) has its share of cannibal giants even if it is more implied than shown on screen.

Whether you look at two very different “cannibal films” such as Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Pigsty (1969) or Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust (1980), cinematic anthropophagy is the culmination of political violence. In Pigsty, Pierre Clementi ate human flesh for rebellion and Jean-Pierre Léaud was eaten alive by pigs as symbolic victim of fascist violence. In Cannibal Holocaust, a documentary crew filming cannibal tribes in Amazon becomes less civilized than its study: the real “cannibals” are, according to Deodato, the media. In 2016, cannibalism still expresses the same violence in different and contrasting forms.

Slack Bay is a dark, droll and dry comedy — think of Dumont’s Lil’ Quinquin remade by Hergé’s Tintin. In the north of France in 1910, a poor fishermen family (the Bruforts) clashes with a bourgeois family (the Van Peteghem) on holiday. The Bruforts have a bad habit of killing and eating richer people. It’s again struggle of classes for lunch. There is not a hint of pleasure when the family tucks into a bucket of severed limbs. Food for discomfort. The Van Peteghem practices another form of ingestion and fluids exchange: incest. Its patriarch André (played by Fabrice Lucchini) nicely exemplifies a system where capitalism naturally equals incest, relying on cousins marrying each other and the full circulation of goods and bodies. Everything flows.

At first, it seems that each family could get stuck in its own loop but Bruno Dumont being Bruno Dumont (we mean twisted), both worlds may come to a truce with a Romeo and Juliet situation. Ma Loute Brufort (boy) and Billie Van Petighem (girl? Boy?) fall in love. Here is another twist: Billie is officially the niece of André but may be his daughter. Her mother Aude (played by Juliette Binoche) was raped in her youth by André and their father. Billie likes to dress as a boy — another example of the own personal family “capitalistic fluidity”. In the end, the relationship goes sour and everyone goes home. Each family, each class is an island from where they can only stare at each other. The final look between Ma Loute and Billie may be more violent and sad than any cannibalistic meal in the film.

Social issues are also the backbone of The Transfiguration but may not be handled as well as in Slack Bay. The main character Milo is a black teenager who is convinced he is a vampire. Milo craves for blood but the films does without the supernatural elements (fear of daylight, shape-shifting, etc.…) because it aims for realism. Milo carefully studies his behaviour and hunting strategy through his collection of vampire flicks VHS, discarding for example Twilight because “it’s not realistic”. Realism also lies in the poor, gang-ridden Queens neighbourhood where Milo lives, his difficult background (absent father, mother committing suicide) and his choice of victims: white people.

At first, Milo is non-discriminatory, picking middle-class men or hobos. But even when Milo chillingly dispatches a little girl, any sense of racial revenge is watered down: by his friendship with his (white) teenage neighbour and his own sense of guilt. Milo’s questioning about the possibility of making “realistic vampire movies” shifts suddenly and surprisingly to “can a vampire commit suicide?”. It’s as if the film was afraid of its transgression, putting a broken and depressed Milo who is vaguely connected to his environment.

Otherwise, “Cannes-ibalism” could definitely wear flashier clothes in 2016, compared to the faded grimness of Slack Bay and The Transfiguration. In the sexy, energetic and twisted Raw, Justine, a vegetarian vet student, tastes flesh when she starts her first year at school. Of course, the once-shy girl wants more. In the hands of director Julia Ducournau, anthropophagy/meat-eating is a slippery concept which cleverly shifts from social pressure (Julia is forced to eat raw liver as part of a school ritual for freshmen) to coming of age, self-discovery.

Raw is gory, with lively, acidic colours and a pulsating soundtrack but Refn’s The Neon Demon pushes the same buttons harder and faster. It is a simpler tale, more akin to a fairy tale with the Little Red Hood among wolves. Or in contemporary terms: Elle Fanning is Jessie, a new debutante model trying to build her own fairy tale in the fashion world of L.A., under the gaze of jealous rivals and astonished casting directors. Jesse is beautiful, the natural, virgin type. Something too pure to behold. Here cannibalism (spoiler: models eating models) has both primitive and social meanings as it is about becoming what you eat and destroying competition. L.A. is the usual meat-grinder for newcomers whether they want to break into Hollywood or onto the catwalks. But the environment that Refn builds around the feast is mesmerizing, hypnotic, rich, Suspiria-like, with hyper-contrasted colours and many details to admire. It is too much but Refn is the first to admit it when one of the cannibal models vomits what/who she ate because she can’t take it. Another model, not wanting to waste anything, swallows what she threw up. In that sense, the “rich” Neon Demon joins the conclusion of the “poor” Slack Bay where all the victims seem to be forgotten, even by the bumbling policemen investigating their disappearance. The 2016 “Cannes-ibalism” makes sure that you never existed. Short-term memory is the new cannibalism. 

Edited by Rita Di Santo