Thursday, October 18, 2018

Caniba: Problematic Experimental True Crime

Evidently, Japan does not have a “Son of Sam” Law, because if it did, Issei Sagawa probably would have starved. In a way, that would have been poetic justice. While studying in Paris at the Sorbonne, Sagawa murdered and partially ate his fellow student, Renée Hartevelt. In the years since, he has traded on his infamy through books, crude autobiographical manga, and appearance in hardcore films as well as documentaries. Noted ethnographic documentarians Véréna Paravel & Lucien Castaing-Taylor are the latest to prolong Sagawa’s fifteen minutes of fame with Caniba (trailer here), which opens tomorrow at the Museum of the Moving Image.

Unfortunately, Hartevelt was not available to participate in the documentary, because Sagawa killed her. He was never really punished for it either. France deported him back to Japan, where he only spent a few years in a mental facility. Since then, his brother Jun has been his primary care-giver and adult supervision. As you might expect, it is a weird symbiotic relationship, but it reaches new levels of awkwardness when Jun finally reveals to his brother the sort of extreme S&M he both fantasizes about and participates in.

Clearly, Paravel & Castaing-Taylor envision the film as a sort of Grey Gardens for violent predators, but their experimental approach perversely drains the film of any lurid interest it might hold for cult movie patrons. Ironically, their extreme close-ups have a distancing effect. Most of their shots of Sagawa look like they were composed with the intent of recreating Bowie’s Hunky Dory album cover.

Without question, the most effective sequences show the Sagawa brothers when they were apparently happy and healthy children. It definitely begs the question: what happened? Yet, the filmmakers do not investigate in any meaningful way. Instead, they latch on to Sagawa’s banal bromides that supposedly explain the forbidden appeal of cannibalism. The truth is, it is pretty thin stuff. Again, Ms. Hartevelt is not afforded an opportunity to present a dissenting view.

The #metoo movement is as good as dead if established filmmakers who regularly present their work at festivals like Venice, Berlin, and Locarno are uncomfortable taking a firm moral stand against killing and eating women. That sounds gauchely harsh, but this film is sort of asking for it. It could very well be problematic in every way possible. Not recommended, Caniba opens tomorrow (10/19) in Queens, NY at MoMI.