On June 11, 1981, 32-year-old Issei Sagawa, then a student at the Sorbonne in Paris, murdered a classmate, Renée Hartevelt, inside his apartment and proceeded to eat her over the next two days. Arrested trying to dispose of Hartevelt’s corpse, Sagawa was let go on a technicality and returned to his native Japan. The man almost immediately capitalized on the notoriety the case brought him: He’s appeared in several films and has written novels, a manga detailing his actions, and even restaurant reviews. This peculiarity makes Sagawa an appropriate subject of Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel’s Caniba, the latest from Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab.
Castaing-Taylor and Paravel’s Leviathan, about the different facets of the North American fishing industry, and Ilisa Barbash and Castaing-Taylor’s Sweetgrass, about sheep herders in the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness, used a uncannily abstract but present-tense formalism to frame human activity within and against the elements. Caniba sees Castaing-Taylor and Paravel moving toward a new formal register, engrossing themselves in a purely psychological environment: that of Sagawa’s contorted desires.
The film keeps a neutral perspective on Sagawa, simply observing his psyche without judging him. He says what comes to mind, often freely but occasionally prompted by his brother, Jun, who devotes his time to taking care of him. Indeed, the true subject of the film is how a person’s perversion—to use a moralizing term—is laid bare. Sagawa’s extreme desires, his pleasure in and reservations about those desires, his fantasies and fetishes, the limits of what he’s willing to say, are all put on display and left to be witnessed.
Sagawa’s shares a lot but remains elusive. For all his eloquence on the subject of his cannibalistic act and feelings—he even walks us through his extremely graphic manga—Castaing-Taylor and Paravel manage to cultivate an eerie feeling of distance from him. Throughout Caniba, there’s a singularly disquieting relationship between the filmmakers’ formal experimentation and their subject. The camera barely leaves Sagawa, but his face fills the frame in often-extreme, out-of-focus closeups, while his monologues coalesce with ambient noise, making it seem like he’s omnipresent. It’s as if we’re being allowed to trace the ebb and flow of his still-active fantasies, which seem to have a life of their own, even as our kneejerk rejection of him is dissolved.
Caniba wrings its effect out of a relatively traditional collection of materials: interviews lead us through Sagawa’s perspective; the man explains himself and his crime; Jun provides a counterpoint; and grainy home movies and old Sagawa-starring pornos add extra information. The home movies show strikingly little else than how normal Sagawa’s upbringing seemed on the surface. Then, an extended sequence with Jun, who finds cannibalism deeply horrendous, reveals him to be an intense masochist, as he’s graphically shown stabbing and burning himself in search of the “perfect pain.”
These scenes bring up more questions than answers, leaving us pondering various aspects about the reasons behind Sagawa’s cannibalistic tendencies. Castaing-Taylor and Paravel cut these sequences with an economy that compels us to ponder what we witness and keeps us questioning after a scene passes. Rather than feeling like a sign of incompleteness on Caniba‘s part, this strategy gives the film a fundamental openness toward its subject by creating free space for engagement and contemplation.
While its formal daring allows unprecedented access to the mind of its subject, Caniba broaches ethical questions that it lacks the resources to address. Though we’re allowed to contemplate Sagawa’s darkest propensities, there’s reason to be wary of how he has so much control over the film’s narrative. Having made a living on his infamy, Sagawa understands what the cameras want from him (he was even the subject of a recent Vice documentary) and knows what to give them, which makes such moments as his excitedly showing off his manga feel overly indulgent.
By going as far as they do in immersing the viewer in Sagawa’s fantasies, Castaing-Taylor and Paravel sometimes end up playing into the man’s unexamined desire for publicity. This becomes clear in the few moments where Jun explicitly confronts Sagawa about certain aspects of his fantasies. He dodges Jun’s question about whether he ever thinks about Hartevelt’s pain and a later one about whether he only wants to eat women. These would have been good places to further get at the root of Sagawa’s cannibalistic desires or challenge his tendency to perform for the camera, but Castaing-Taylor and Paravel seem unwilling to go beyond mere broaching and are content to record whatever Sagawa is willing to share with them. With no push to either interrogate or contextualize the man, the cool ethnographer’s detachment of the film comes to take on a sensationalistic tenor.