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TIFF 2017: Confronting Caniba, the festival’s most confrontational film

Director Verena Paravel attends the photocall of the movie Caniba presented in the "Orizzonti" selection at the 74th Venice Film Festival on Sept. 4, 2017.

TIZIANA FABI/AFP/Getty Images

When Caniba premiered earlier in the week in Venice, half of the audience walked out. At Sunday evening's TIFF bow, it was only a couple, maybe five. Filmmakers Véréna Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor were forewarned by Toronto International Film Festival programmers that Canadians are "hyper-politically correct." They were ready, as Castaing-Taylor puts it, to "get savaged."

"We don't really know what we're doing when we make a film," says Castaing-Taylor, who is broad and built like a Viking, long hair draping over his shoulders, his eyes either impossibly crystalline or otherwise inlaid with customized contact lenses, so bright that when he looks at you, it's like he's looking through you, like you're a Magic Eye puzzle or just a run-of-the-mill fraud. "As human beings, we're as egomaniacal and narcissistic as anyone else. We're not indifferent to how this film comes across. With this film, in part because it's so opaque to us, we're curious to see how people respond to it."

Castaing-Taylor and his co-director, the French anthropologist Paravel – who is wiry and diminutive and very sharp, such that the pair have the appearance of an otherworldly vaudeville comedy duo, where they're both the imposing straight man – seem vaguely disappointed about the reaction to their new film, Caniba.

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I feel confident injecting myself here, if only to say that Véréna Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor's Caniba is the most confrontational and disturbing film I've ever encountered. Not merely among this year's TIFF selections. Or this year. Ever. And I've subjected myself to a Boschian buffet of cinematic horrors, shocks and provocations, out of a mix of professional obligation, academic interest (I sometimes teach a class on horror films, subjecting myself and my students to images and theories of the abject and excessive), and perverse personal pride. I had, so to speak, seen it all. And then I saw Caniba.

It's a documentary about Issei Sagawa, a Japanese man who, in 1981, while studying literature at the Sorbonne, murdered and ate a classmate, a 25-year-old Dutch woman named Renée Hartevelt. For days he defiled and devoured her corpse. He was arrested by Parisian police when he attempted to deposit the remains of the body, stuffed into a suitcase, in a lake in a public park. He was declared insane and unfit to stand trial, and was sent back to Japan, where he lives as a free man, and something of a minor celebrity – referenced in rock songs, frequently featured in documentaries and even paid to appear in a Japanese pornographic film.

Caniba recounts Sagawa's crimes in gory, unflinching detail. One extended sequence features close-ups of a comic book Sagawa wrote and illustrated himself, which depict his crimes as sensational, deeply disturbing, cartoons. In another sequence, Sagawa's brother, flexing his own deviant sexual pathologies, is shown stabbing his arm and shoulders with a knife, and wrapping the area in barbed wire, while describing how, for him, the arm is its own erogenous zone, a Freudian fetish object. These sequences are so aggressive they're almost unbelievable. It awakens a screeching inner moralist, nagging miniaturized Marge Simpson buried deep down somewhere, that wants to shout down the film as aberrant, disgusting, immoral – that wants to deny its right to even exist in the first place.

"I was expecting a lot of resentment," says Paravel. "Really often, when people feel uncomfortable with something, rather than trying to reflect on why they feel so uncomfortable, they usually like to blame the maker. I was expecting that." Predicting such hostile reactions, Paravel and Castaing-Taylor added an opening warning to the film, claiming that they're in no way endorsing Sagawa, and that depiction alone does not constitute some seal of approval. After all, the reality – our reality – is that Sagawa exists, and that he committed his unspeakable crimes. That alone, they believe, is reason enough to justify a film.

Castaing-Taylor lays out the stakes more defiantly: "If we refuse – as filmmakers, as artists, as intellectuals, as anthropologists – to address subjects that challenge us ethically and intellectually, then we leave a record for the future that is divested of everything that makes us real. There's nothing more real than being in a situation of ethical ambivalence. We're all confronted with ethical ambivalence every day of our lives. The idea of retreating from a subject because it makes us uncomfortable seems to me very cowardly."

Paravel and Castaing-Taylor's films have no use for such cowardice. In their last collaboration, 2012's Leviathan, the duo clipped waterproof GoPro cameras all over a fishing boat (to trawling ropes, to masts, to fisherman, to fish) to capture the overwhelming intensity of the experience of industrial fishing. Here, they experiment with proximity and duration, drawing into extended, claustrophobic closeups (described in the TIFF programming note as "fleshy") as Sagawa recounts his childhood, and his sexual pathology. It's this last point that constitutes Caniba's most extreme provocation: exploring cannibalism, as construed by Sagawa, as primarily a sexual and erotic act.

"Cannibalism is a huge subject for archeologists and anthropologists," Castaing-Taylor explains. "They're dealing with this ritualistic, religious, culturally sanctioned form of cannibalism that somehow never obliges the scholars to confront the morality of the act. They're dealing with it as a cultural practice. They're never dealing with the subjectivity of those who are engaged in it, which differ from individual to individual, culture to culture. Here, in modernity, it's tied to sexuality as well."

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While Caniba challenges (and revolts, and punishes), Paravel and Castaing-Taylor are justified in their belief that negative reactions to their movie proceed from a fundamental disingenuousness. After all, ours is a culture obsessed with zombies and vampires and well-acculturated man-eating psychiatrists. We feel comfortable flirting with the taboo of cannibalism. So why not go all the way? Caniba attempts to strip away the cultural and anthropological frameworks to return to what Castaing-Taylor calls "the literalism of cannibalism." Caniba is a movie about cannibalism itself.

As to their success in this regard, Paravel and Castaing-Taylor can't say. They're not being cute when they say they don't know what they're doing when they make a movie. "People who think they know what their films mean are deluded," says Castaing-Taylor, effectively calling out the bulk of directors and would-be artists who clog up downtown Toronto hotel suites for film-fest junket interviews. "They actually have the least objective relationship to their work than anyone else."

Paravel and Castaing-Taylor are as interested in negative press as any reactions, believing that the meaning of the film grows and changes as it enters into the culture, inviting response. "This film is still at the beginning," says Paravel. "It was born just a couple days ago. Now we have all the time to think about it … We finish a film when a film becomes an object of mystery to us – when it challenges our thinking."

In its extremity of form and content Caniba conjoins the filmmakers and their unlikely, repugnant subject, and then that subject with the viewers, who are forced to scan Sagawa's face for some lingering humanity. It is a communion. In this sense, Paravel and Castaing-Taylor's cannibal film is not unlike that fundamental sacrament of Western culture: the Eucharist. It's a taken-for-granted tenet of the Christian West that body and blood, when consumed, can symbolically – or in the case of Catholics, literally – be converted, by some ghostly magic, into something else entirely, something challenging and mysterious. Perhaps such mystical, numinous, heavily symbolic frameworks are a necessary to buttress material so astonishingly aberrant and perverse.

Or perhaps that's precisely the sort of sense-making, rationalization, and relativization that Caniba is working against. As Paravel puts it: "When we think things disappear, they actually re-emerge in symbolic things. Today's world is filled with violence: Think of the connection between violence and religion, violence and cannibalism. Cannibalism exists in many attenuated forms. We have been cannibals. And we are."

Granted, some viewers are bound to find such an explanation hard to swallow.

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