Views & Reviews: Hannibal

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Killer Appetite

It’s the age-old story: Cannibal meets Girl, Cannibal loses Girl. And just imagine Cannibal’s confusion when the girl, over the course of ten years, morphs from a diminutive, round-faced, doe-eyed waif into a lissome, flame-haired minx. Going to sleep with Jodie Foster and waking up with Julianne Moore . . . now that could either kill a man’s appetite or whet it. And that casting change may, in fact, be the most compelling dilemma presented in Ridley Scott’s Hannibal, or it would be if the film weren’t obliged to pretend the switcheroo never happened.

Producer Dino de Laurentiis, however, has been under no such compunction. In a recent Reuters interview, he declared that Jodie Foster simply wasn’t sexy enough to reprise her Oscar-winning role. “Do I want to go in bed with Julianne Moore when I see her in the [movie]? The answer is, yes. Do I want to go in bed with Jodie Foster? The answer’s no.” De Laurentiis even claimed that Foster’s last picture, Anna and the King, failed at the box office “because there was no sex appeal there.”

I hate to admit it, but buried inside the man’s gibberish is a genuine insight. Jodie Foster’s occluded sexuality was, in retrospect, central to the effectiveness of Silence of the Lambs. The Clarice Starling of that film didn’t have the defenses of a mature woman. She was still inching her way toward sexual confidence, and that sense of something unfinished in her was what made her such an enticing auditor for Lecter: he could dwell in her empty spaces.

Julianne Moore, by contrast, couldn’t dampen her sexuality if she tried (though she came close as the idiot sister in Robert Altman’s 1999 film Cookie’s Fortune). Which makes her, oddly enough, the right actress for Hannibal. Indeed, the movie’s most startling departure from the original is in the way it completely eroticizes its heroine. When Ridley Scott’s camera isn’t tracking the exploits of man-eating pigs, it’s lingering on Clarice’s taut thighs and admiring the way her creamy breasts cling to a black cocktail dress. The Clarice of Hannibal has left her frumpy trainee status far behind; she’s a professional now, well-plumbed and a little eroded, a career woman who gets regularly eyeballed by her male co-workers and who may have even slept with a married colleague. There’s an air of exhaustion about her, as though she were trailing every ruinous affair she ever had, and she responds to Hannibal’s voice not as an old lover but as a recovering codependent.

Hannibal, by contrast, sounds frisky as all get out, but then he’s living in Florence under the name of Dr. Fell, and he spends most of his time giving lectures on Renaissance art and standing very still so as to form chiaroscuro compositions. One would think that traveling with your own key light would attract a degree of suspicion from passers-by, but aside from a skeptical local cop (the appealingly rumpled Giancarlo Giannini), no one bats an eye. Maybe they just assume that Dr. Fell, with his wide-brimmed pastel fedoras and his louche way of strolling down the street, sipping wine in cafés and carefully wiping fingerprints off goblets, is the reincarnated essence of Truman Capote.

Come to think of it, that could also explain why Clarice’s odious FBI boss (Ray Liotta) theorizes that Hannibal is queer. We can’t tell from Clarice’s reaction whether she’s outraged by the suggestion or giving it some passing thought, but we do see, in arty flashback, a sequence of Hannibal seducing one of his male victims, a fey rich fella named Mason Verger, who, under the good doctor’s malign influence, performs a fairly extreme exfoliation on himself. (For this, he is amply punished by being hidden under layers of grotesque latex and portrayed by Gary Oldman.)

The shot of Hannibal scooping up Mason’s discarded flesh and feeding it to the dog is about as close as this movie comes to a sexual climax. It’s also a good sign of how far the sequel — and author Thomas Harris — has veered off course. Silence of the Lambs hit us where we lived. It was, within the context of its genre, both plausible and congruent. Hannibal seems to occupy another world entirely, a fantastic cosmos where notorious criminals travel unmolested from continent to continent and carry out elaborate executions in complete peace and isolation. By the time it roils around to its climactic sequence — a macabre dinner party in which guests double as entrees — Hannibal Lecter has lost whatever inside track he once had in our nightmares. He’s been swamped in Gothic kitsch, turned into a flesh-eating Phantom of the Opera. (And given Hans Zimmer’s overblown score, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to hear Andrew Lloyd Webber chords dragging like an anchor beneath the next Lecter opus.)

The dinner party, of course, is just a prelude to a kiss. And while we might have guessed that Hannibal would get Clarice in a clinch, who would have imagined he would first need to trap her long straight hair in a refrigerator? And who would have thought the long-awaited buss would matter so little? Here, perhaps, is the movie’s biggest surprise: that Hannibal and Clarice, after all this enforced distance, have so little to say to each other, and even less to say to us. Hannibal is awash in wine-sauteed brains and exposed intestines, but the strongest aroma wafting from it is anticlimax.

Louis Bayard and, Inc.