Brains Over Beauty

The most charitable assessment of Hannibal I can make is to call it a burlesque about the difficulties of staying retired. Anthony Hopkins’s Hannibal Lecter, having escaped confinement at the end of The Silence of the Lambs, returns in its sequel after about 30 pulpish, excessively expository minutes, and the movie sorely needs him: He’s not the only one who is famished for something to chew on. Lecter is living as a curator in a fifteenth-century palazzo in Florence, with hardly a killing to his credit in the past decade. FBI agent Clarice Starling, once a rookie played by Jodie Foster, now a hardened pro played by Julianne Moore, is eventually put on his case after being made to take the rap for a drug bust gone blooey. Though they don’t actually meet until near the film’s end, Lecter and Clarice are kindred spirits: ultrasmart loners who exhibit good manners amid gross-outs. Clarice even has an impressive, Hannibalistic roster of kills; there’s a rather feeble joke involving her receiving a congratulatory letter from the Guinness people on being the female agent with the most hits. Once Lecter realizes Clarice is back on his tail, he perks up. He looks more plush and less like a logy moray eel.

I was not one of the many who thought The Silence of the Lambs an imperishable classic. Its director, Jonathan Demme, eliminated just about everything I admired him for in such films as Citizens Band and Melvin and Howard and the Talking Heads documentary Stop Making Sense – his funky expansiveness and generosity – and instead indulged in crime-blotter profundities. Jodie Foster had a feral fearfulness that made one afraid for her, but her mind-meld sessions with Hopkins’s Lecter were pure deadpan hokum; and Hopkins’s performance was essentially a repertoire of bogeyman faces. (As Lecter in the earlier Manhunter, Brian Cox actually gave the more imposing performance, but the film was a commercial dud.) Hopkins replicates his light, creepily insinuating voice in Hannibal, but otherwise he’s more dapper and plump – abstaining from cannibalism apparently has not been good for his waistline. He has made Lecter a more princely monster this time out, and the film is careful to make each of his kills justifiable. Not that it needed to; I’m sure audiences would have sympathized with Lecter anyway. We’re such suckers for good breeding.

Ridley Scott, who directed from a script by David Mamet and Steve Zaillian, must have realized he faced a much bigger problem here than just getting audiences to accept a new actress as Clarice. He had to find a way to retain the horror of the first film without dragging the whole enterprise down into terminal glumness. The 1999 Thomas Harris best-seller from which the film is derived distanced itself from the previous books featuring Lecter in being outrageously over-the-top: camp Grand Guignol. The movie often stays in that same flamboyant spirit, but Scott is not exactly the wittiest of filmmakers; he’s too infatuated by glissando camera moves and spangly set pieces. Most of his attempts at black humor in Hannibal fall flat because humor requires a certain humbleness and Scott is too busy trying to wow us. There are almost no quiet effects in Hannibal, and, despite the Florentine scenes, there’s not much beauty either. When Scott veers into farce, as in a sequence where wild boars are shown goring a Lecter-like dummy, or FBI experts sniff a letter to determine its origin, the film just seems screwed-up, tone-deaf. It’s difficult to know what was intended throughout much of this movie. We get so many extreme close-ups of Gary Oldman playing a vengeful, gruesomely disfigured victim of Lecter’s that it’s as if Scott were inviting us to take a bite out of him, too.

Audiences reacted to Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs the way they might to a true-life serial killer; his gobbling was not considered a joking matter. The audience for Hannibal is far more primed for a good time; if the film is a hit, it will be because Lecter has been cartoonized; his ghoulish panache, his double entendres about cannibalism, and his pet phrases like “goody-goody” and “okeydokey” all serve to make him a figure of fun. So what if he serves up human brains for dinner? Surrounded by stiffs, he shines by comparison.

I would include Julianne Moore among the stiffs. She’s a remarkable actress, of course, but she’s still operating in the clenched-jaw mode of the first film. Much of what she is given to do in Hannibal is thankless anyway: She shoots a steady stream of steely glances at her crumbum Justice Department superior (Ray Liotta) and spends a lot of time looking peevish and peering into computer screens. She’s Fay Wray to Lecter’s King Kong. The filmmakers jettison the novel’s finale, in which she and Lecter end up as lovers, but maybe they should’ve retained it: Clarice could use more whoopie in her life. Even though she’s in almost every scene, she doesn’t feel essential to the movie. She’s just a distraction from Hannibal’s cooking classes.

The film’s dogged loopiness and icky bloodletting will probably capture the teen audience, who won’t mind that the damned thing doesn’t really add up. And the filmmakers make no bones at the end about setting up a sequel. (There is talk of remaking Manhunter next.) Hannibal Lecter is the ostensible cannibal of this franchise, but the real cannibals are his creators. I wouldn’t be surprised if the next time, they have him endorsing his favorite Chianti.

In Brief: François Ozon’s Sous le Sable has an extraordinarily evocative first half-hour. Marie (Charlotte Rampling) and her husband, Jean (Bruno Cremer), are vacationing on the beach when suddenly, inexplicably, he vanishes. His disappearance is so baffling that it quickly moves from the world of police procedure into something more cosmically alienating. At its best, the film is an existential detective story, but by focusing most of the action on Charlotte Rampling’s unbelieving face, Ozon can’t quite get past the actress’s beautiful blankness. The waves of feeling that should be pouring out of her instead seem calcified. Rampling reinforces what is modish and slick about Sous le Sable, but the film stays with you anyway. Ozon has a genuine feeling for loss.

Directed by Ridley Scott; starring Anthony Hopkins and Julianne Moore.
Sous le Sable
Directed by François Ozon; starring Charlotte Rampling and Bruno Cremer.

Brains Over Beauty