Monday, August 20, 2012

'The Silence of the Lambs' (1991) directed by Jonathan Demme, 18th August 2012

Some moments in film leave an indelible mark on the viewer, and there are few more memorable than the introduction to Dr Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) in 'The Silence of the Lambs'.  Hannibal Lecter is in terms of the narrative almost an ancillary character in the film, yet he exudes a gravitational pull over every other aspect.  Mention the film to anyone, and doubtless the first image that springs to mind will be that calm, composed body language coupled with those staring, somehow maniacally relaxed eyes.  Eyes that stare straight into the camera rather than at any element in the film.  He's looking at us.

Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lector
But he's just a component in a wider narrative of a rookie FBI agent Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) in a race against time to find serial killer 'Buffalo Bill' (Ted Levine) before his latest captor becomes another victim.  It's a coolly tense film from beginning to end, one that takes place in a desaturated world populated by a series of damaged and neurotic people.  There are few truly psychologically healthy characters in this film, and those that are tend to become traumatised as events spin out of control around them.  

Demme is exacting in the world he creates.  He makes sure that everything is interestingly tactile; for example in Starling's descent to the cells in which Lecter lives, all the doors squeak and creak alarmingly.  Everything seems to be slowly decaying around the characters.   Even something as simple as opening a storage space requires a car jack, and Starling to crawl underneath in the dirt and dust.  The upshot of all this grime and ruin is that it is very hard to spot light at the end of the tunnel.  Even though Starling eventually saves the day, a happy ending never feels like a guarantee at any point.  

In a very 'dirty' film, it's telling to look out for the clean and bright spaces.  Here Demme defies expectations.  Hannibal Lecter built up as a character expertly.  People talk about him in hushed, awed tones.
"Do not touch the glass. Do not approach the glass. You pass him nothing but soft paper - no pencils or pens. No staples or paperclips in his paper. Use the sliding food carrier, no exceptions. If he attempts to pass you anything, do not accept it. Do you understand me?"
What's on that photograph must be pretty horrible.
We are thus primed to meet a monster. As Starling is led down into the Lector's prison/dungeon she is warned over and over again how dangerous he is. She is shown a photograph of what Lecter did to someone's face the last time he got free. While Starling looks on, we are left to imagine what horrors the photo depicts. She walks down the corridor to his cell, the last one on the row. She passes a row of wild-looking, terrifying degenerates living in filthy conditions, their hair ragged and wild, muttering to themselves obscenely.

Then we meet Lecter.  Standing composed, still, neatly turned out in the middle of a spotless cell. No bars to keep him in, but solid and transparent perspex, almost like there's nothing there at all. His body language so composed we might suspect he's made of wax.  Demme has carefully raised our expectations and then dashed them in one swoop.  In this world of filth it is the cannibalistic psychopath that is set apart by his cleanliness, manners and perspicacity. 

We later venture into another underworld, one seems to fit into expectations of what a serial killer's lair should be.  It almost too neatly fits into certain categories of horror though.  It's a dank, dirty basement populated by fluttering moths and caterpillars.  Disturbing images adorn the walls and as a centrepiece there is a huge dark pit, the sides covered in bloody handprints.  This difference between Hannibal Lecter and Buffalo Bill allows us to separate the two thematically.  We are gently encouraged to admire Lecter's taste and intelligence, while deploring Buffalo Bill's lapse into serial killer cliche.  Lecter knows himself inside and out, knows what he is, why he kills and what he wants to achieve.  Buffalo Bill is a man desperately seeking a purpose and identity, a man trying to transform himself into something else.

Ted Levine as Buffalo Bill
Throughout the film there is a constant motif of metamorphosis and transformation.  Buffalo Bill's goal is to kill enough women to make a 'woman suit' from their skins in an attempt to achieve this aim.  He keeps moths and butterflies, placing their chrysalis' in his victim's mouths.  The chrysalis is a pretty unambiguous symbol of change here.  But it's not just Buffalo Bill who's in the process of change, or of trying to change what they are.

Jodie Foster as Clarice Starling
When Lecter meets Starling he almost instantly manages to deduce her past, and her insecurities. 
"You know what you look like to me, with your good bag and your cheap shoes? You look like a rube. A well scrubbed, hustling rube with a little taste. Good nutrition's given you some length of bone, but you're not more than one generation from poor white trash, are you, Agent Starling? And that accent you've tried so desperately to shed: pure West Virginia. What is your father, dear? Is he a coal miner? Does he stink of the lamp? You know how quickly the boys found you. All those tedious sticky fumblings in the back seats of cars. While you could only dream of getting out, getting anywhere, getting all the way to the F-B-I."
Starling is trying to hide her somewhat tragic past as an orphan from the country, but gives herself away fairly easily.  She's mostly succeeded in her self induced transformation, but tends to give herself away in unguarded moments.  You can pick up hints of it when she refers to a victim of Buffalo Bill being 'from town', an expression only someone who wasn't from 'town' would use.  Lecter gradually teases her tragic past out of her, exposing her latent 'daddy' issues and childhood trauma (the titular silence of the lambs). Starling's attempts to get over this trauma add a personal element in her crusade to save Bill's latest victim.  She may not have been able to save a lamb marked for slaughter as a child, but saving this woman helps make up for that.  Jodie Foster is grippingly realistic as Agent Starling, and more than holds her own against the overtly attention grabbing performances of Hopkins and Levine.   

She's self-confident, ambitious and smart, but she's in a man's world and is never allowed to forget it.  In general the gender discrimination that Starling suffers isn't done consciously by the male characters, but they rather tend to unthinkingly place her situations where her gender can be seen as a liability.  A prime example of this is when she and her superior, Crawford have travelled to the autopsy of one of Bill's victims.  Demme positions her standing in the middle of group of gawping policemen, panning around their faces as they look down at her with a faint hint of contempt on their faces.  She takes command, raising her voice and authoritatively ordering them out of the room:

"Excuse me! Excuse me, gentlemen. You officers and gentlemen, listen here now. There's things we need to do for her. I know that you all brought her this far and that her folks would thank you if they could for your kindness and your sensitivity. And now, please, go on now and let us take care of her. Go on, now. Thank you."
It feels like a test of some kind, and one that she passes with flying colours.  Another way in which Starling's gender becomes an issue is that of touch, and I see this focus on touch, and particularly skin on skin touch as being an important aspect of the film.  Throughout the film, men are touching Starling.  It's often quite innocent, but even a simple act like placing a hand on her shoulder has definite paternal implications.   She gets advances in one form or another from most of the men in the film, even the nerdy etymologist tries to ask her out for "cheeseburgers" while invading her personal space. 

Lecter makes contact with Starling.
The two most intense examples of these moments are from the two killers she comes into contact with, Lecter and Bill.  Lecter has been repeatedly defined as 'untouchable'.  While other prisoners are behind bars, he is behind glass.  Starling has been explicitly told not to go anywhere near him, not that she would naturally - he seems to radiate danger like a shark or tiger.  But towards the middle of the film, when Lecter has been placed in a cage in a hotel, he  moves to hand her a dossier he's looked through.  Starling breaks free from the men dragging her outside (more manhandling of her) and rushes forward.  As she takes the papers, Lecter strokes his finger against hers.  It's only a microsecond of contact, but seems strangely erotic.  It's a vague hint of forbidden passion.  This strange quasi-romantic relationship between Starling and Lecter is only hinted at in this film, Lecter taunts Starling at one point saying, "people will say we're in love" and there's a grain of truth to it.

Bill reaches for Starling's hair
The contact between Bill and Starling is in another context entirely.  Starling has discovered Bill's lair.  Bill has turned the lights out, plunging the cellar into pitch darkness.  As Starling claws her way through the dark, panic etched onto her features, Bill puts on a pair of nightvision goggles and stalks her through the dark.  From his perspective we see his hand come forward, and reach out to gently stroke her hair.  At the moment of contact, Bill's revolver clicks, Starling 'sees' him and empties her gun into him, killing him.  In some way this feels like a culmination of her frustrations with men over the film.  Throughout they are, as Lecter puts it 'coveting' her in some form.  In killing Bill, who after all, covets women in the most destructive and sadistic way she is exorcising this spectre and indeed in the next scenes we see her receiving her full agent status.  The final direct contact with Starling comes from her boss, she offers her hand to him, and they shake as equals in a scene that seems free of any sexual overtones.  Although (and I may be imagining this) he seems to hold her hand just a moment too long.  

Starling shakes Crawford's hand.
Skin plays an important role throughout this film, and not just in the way the men treat Agent Starling.  The most notable example is Buffalo Bill's attempted construction of the 'woman suit', made out of real women.  But Bill isn't the only person in the film to use another's skin for a piece of clothing of some kind.  In escaping custody, Lecter cuts the face off one of his guards and poses as him, only revealing himself in the ambulance when he memorably pulls the bloody mask from his own face.  Both of these men take pleasure in cutting and intruding upon the human form, but their methods are different.  Lecter in his cannibalism ingests his victims, on some level undergoing a kind of communion with them.  Bill attempts to undergo a communion with his victims too, but his methods are cruder and inelegant.  He seems, unconsciously, like a poor imitation of Lecter.

Lecters communion?
There is an awful lot to discuss in 'Silence of the Lambs'.  Issues of gender, transformation, sex, violation of the body and the contact with the world.  What stays with me is the way the broken characters within this world interact with each other, and particularly with Starling.  This is a film where various boundaries, of the body and elsewhere are sacrosanct, and those who violate this are committing a horrific, fascinating blasphemy.

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