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Hannibal, Or: A Question of Taste

by Jason Comerford

Ridley Scott's new film Hannibal, adapted from the Thomas Harris novel by David Mamet and Stephen Zaillian, tries to position itself as a highbrow horror film to such a ludicrous extent that it effectively cancels itself out. Amongst the triumvirate of Hannibal Lecter stories, this is surely the least, because there's simply too much of Lecter himself. Harris introduced the Lecter character in Red Dragon, filmed by Michael Mann as Manhunter in 1986, and the character there was embodied by the fine Scottish actor Brian Cox as a kind of hip, loose-limbed psycho celebrity, sprawling himself over his tiny climate-controlled prison cell like a lion waiting for the bait to get near his paws. The film used Lecter as more of a device than a character, however; its plot holes were monstrous, but Mann, always a beautiful visual stylist, gave the story a slick visual sheen and kept the suspense, however improbable, constant. Jonathan Demme's highly- lauded followup, The Silence of the Lambs, took the Lecter character and gave him probably less screen time than he had in Manhunter, but Anthony Hopkins' performance spun the character in a new -- and far more effective -- direction. Hopkins made Lecter still and completely controlled, using his eyes and his voice, rather than his body. His master stroke was that of simplicity; Lecter only moved when he had to, and when he did, our eyes followed his every move, dreading what might happen next.

Unfortunately, the central flaw of the Lecter character is what seriously weakens his latest go-around; the character has grown sillier and sillier with each outing. Lecter is, after all, a fundamentally ridiculous creation -- in Red Dragon, Harris referred to him as having red eyes and six fingers (!) -- and the idea that Lecter is a demon in the flesh is constantly at odds with the ostensible realism of the drama surrounding him. Placing a clearly supernatural figure in the midst of stories striving for verisimilitude is a good idea, but Harris takes his own pretensions so seriously that he only magnifies how goofy his central conceit really is.

Hannibal begins with a botched FBI raid, the blame for which is pinned on agent Clarice Starling (Julianne Moore). It's a clear sign that this movie is off to a rocky start when such a plot turn happens for no good reason, other than if she wasn't unfairly condemned, the movie would have nowhere to go. Starling, in the 10 years since Lecter's escape at the end of The Silence of the Lambs, finds herself chasing down Lecter again, and once again is baited into an intercontinental cat-and-mouse game. Added to the mix is Mason Verger (an unbilled, unrecognizable Gary Oldman), a horrifically disfigured survivor of a Lecter attack, now focused on getting revenge, whatever the cost. Further complications -- such as they are -- are added by Starling's immediate superior, and former lover, Paul Krendler (Ray Liotta in full-tilt-meltdown style). This is one of those movies where jilted lovers are so incensed with their objects d'amour that they'll sell them out as bait to head cases, only because if they didn't, the movie would have nowhere to go. (One senses a trend here.)

Lecter, meanwhile, is shown roaming freely about Florence, Italy, having established himself as a library curator, while being tracked by a suspicious Italian cop (the wonderful Giancarlo Giannini). The Florence sequences are the best of the film, if only because there's more of a narrative here than there is Stateside, but they also illustrate the film's fatal sense of pretentiousness. Lecter has now become a kind of force of nature, killing the people who offend his sense of taste. We're way beyond the demon-in-the-flesh angle now; Lecter's an elitist wag, tsk-tsking those who don't have his highly-developed sense of artistic and historical appreciation, and occasionally taking the time to slice up anyone who gets in the way of his intellectual pursuits. It would be one thing if the script presented its historical allusions with subtlety, but they're leaned on so heavily that the film loses any momentum it might have had. Lecter was once a frightening creation, because he could pick anyone off; now he's a device again, chirping "Ta-ta" and "Okie-dokie" while being buried under literary charades.

The ostensible meat of the story comes from the love-hate "relationship" between Lecter and Starling, and once the film's second half starts directly addressing this, the rickety construction of the plot becomes even more apparent. Starling, up until this point, has done little except poke around an artfully-shadowed basement area in the FBI, playing (and replaying) recorded conversations between her and Lecter, and occasionally doing some half-enthusiastic sleuthing. Once Lecter hits US soil, and Verger's let's-bait- Clarice plan springs into motion, the film becomes mechanical and lackadaisical. Structurally, the plotting is potentially interesting, but the all-important relationship between Starling and Lecter is hopelessly muddled, lost in a sea of psychobabble. It's important that we get a sense of Lecter's fascination for Clarice (and vice versa), but it's never quite as believable as Harris wants it to be. The angle -- that a psychotic killer who's smarter than everyone in the world is drawn to a West-Virginia country girl -- is almost as hard to swallow as the film's climax, where Lecter happily sautes the brain of a still-living Krendler and then feeds it to him. Much ink has been spilled about the vividness of said sequence, but it's not all that horrific; it's more comical in its ridiculousness than anything else, a sitcom dinner-table scene as imagined by Salvador Dali. And there's an irony somewhere, in the fact that Lecter becomes the same kind of jilted lover to Clarice that Krendler was, but I'm too tired to go looking for it.

Ridley Scott approaches Hannibal with the same visual style that he brings to everything; everything's impossibly photogenic, the colors (courtesy cinematographer John Mathieson) saturated to the point that they look practically tangible. But it's pretty clear that he was sucked into the silliness of the story as much as his actors were. I can't really fault Hopkins or Moore or Oldman, all fine actors struggling to make sense of such lopsided material, but I did find myself wishing, every once in a while, that they didn't take the material so damned seriously. Hannibal is one of those films desperately in need of a sense of humor -- just a tiny bit. But it's so wrapped up in itself that it doesn't leave room for anything else.

Hans Zimmer, to his credit, approached the scoring of the film with more restraint than I expected, though he's hitting similar contrasting notes (so to speak) as with his scoring of Gladiator. (Specifically, underscoring part of the opening shootout of Hannibal with a melancholy dirge, a la the opening battle of Gladiator.) There's a terrifically low-key, rhythmic cue for a sequence involving Giannini's attempts to put a tag on Lecter (briefly sampled on the CD), and some amusing Zimmer-style twists on classical pieces. However, his penchant for overkill manifests itself every once in a while, with operatic/secular choral writing swelling to levels that push a sense of religious mythology that's at odds with his more restrained cues. Zimmer's clearly trying to find a balance between the Grand Guignol horror effects and a more emotional center, but with the material at hand it's a doomed enterprise from the beginning.

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