Writing on Persona for Sight & Sound in 1967, Susan Sontag rhapsodized about Ingmar Bergman’s unorthodox handling of narrative, praising his decision to utilize the story structure as a “thematic resource” rather than a means of dispensing a coherent plot. “Images and dialogue are given which the viewer cannot help but find puzzling,” she wrote, “not being able to decipher whether certain scenes take place in the past, present or future; and whether certain images and episodes belong to ‘reality’ or ‘fantasy’.”
Two years later, after securing funding from the renowned film production company Sandrews, Sontag made Duet for Cannibals, her own attempt at capturing a slipstream-like roundelay of events, and in Swedish no less. Like Persona, her directorial debut hazards a similar bid for the arrangement of narrative as “variations on a theme,” and while the results aren’t quite on the same level as Bergman, they represent a respectable, effort on Sontag’s part to both break down narrative convention and advance her own personal ideas.
The story deals with a baroque series of escalating mind games between Bauer (Lars Ekborg), a famed German leftist living in exile in Stockholm, and Tomas (Gösta Ekman), his young assistant. Taking on the position from a mixture of politically sympathetic curiosity and financial desperation, Tomas and his relationship with his live-in girlfriend, Ingrid (Agneta Ekmanner), is put under heavy strain. This worsens as Bauer demands more and more of his time, forcing him to take up residence in his apartment, to better serve at his beck and call. Things only get more confusing when Ingrid herself enters the fray, paired against Bauer’s unstable Italian wife, Francesca (Adriana Asti), in a rectangle of dysfunctional connection.
Embarking on its own Bergmanesque fantasia, the film slips freely, often confusingly, between realist and surrealist crosscurrents. In one memorable moment, Tomas and Ingrid go on a boating date that ends abruptly when he spots his employer on shore; he leaps out of the boat to join him, leaving Ingrid behind on the water. The occurrence of such disjunctions itself becomes a form of comedy, as scene after scene quavers between straight-faced severity and utter absurdism. At one point, Tomas’s frustrating encounter with one of Bauer’s dictaphone recordings segues into a head-to-head dispute, the characters’ interpersonal borders proving as porous as those of the film itself. Instances like this prove Bauer’s complete mastery over his domain, promoting the possibility that this entire enterprise is some kind of twisted attempt to cuckold himself, ensnaring his novice employee by using his vivacious wife as bait.
His actual intent remains mysterious, establishing him as the cryptic on-screen analogue to Sontag’s destabilizing formal approach. Whether we’re witnessing the tectonic plates of text and subtext colliding roughly with one another, or just an elaborate gag at the expense of viewers primed to expect impenetrable, pretentious weirdness from their Euro art cinema, is never entirely clear. The film’s ultimate liability, in fact, is that it can’t seem to decide if it’s doing pastiche or parody. It’s clearest thematic throughline remains the metaphorical transfer of horrid, self-serving behavior—disguised as rigorous intellectual purity—forced down from one generation to another. Qualities of the older couple become imprinted upon the younger, in an unnerving mode that mixes the scholarly and the familial, with a marked sexual undertone that seems requisite to this kind of boundary-pushing experimentation.
Yet the sort of theorizing that Duet for Cannibals demands is bound to inevitably draw inquisitive viewers toward the type of analytical over-examination that Sontag railed against in “Against Interpretation,” one of her most famous essays and the basis of much of her work from this time period. The most plausible, and rewarding, explanation may then be that her directorial debut represents a cross-medium introduction of this theory of sensual liberation into the cinematic bloodstream, antagonizing viewers as a further nudge to lay off the heavy textual lifting. It’s a lesson that may hold even greater relevance today, when the internet allows every inch of any given film to be picked over with a fine-toothed comb.
It also doesn’t hurt that Duet for Cannibals is frequently hilarious: An acidulous, dry humor runs beneath its formal provocations, from Bauer slowly spreading shaving cream over his car windshield to obscure the view inside, to a toned, briefs-clad man holding a handstand through the entirety of a pivotal dramatic scene. In this regard, the film feels ahead of its time, while totally leftfield in others. An interesting, if tonally inconsistent, experiment, it serves as an intriguing cinematic extension of its maker’s more well-known written work.