City Paper – Film review, Hannibal

From the February 9, 2001 issue of Washington City Paper.

A Wild Bore

By Virginia Vitzthum

Hannibal, directed by Ridley Scott

Halfway through Hannibal Lecter’s comeback special, the beloved cannibal suavely tosses off the phrase “it’s perfectly au naturel.” The malapropism is right at home in this sumptuous, stupid sequel, which treats Bach and Armani, Julianne Moore and Florentine palazzi, red velvet drapes and foreign accents as fungible signifiers of classiness. The Dino De Laurentiis-produced Hannibal is an epic of vulgarian snobbery, full of admiration for Sir Anthony Hopkins’ connoisseur of perfume and painting. The film’s grisliest punishment is saved for Ray Liotta’s philistine bureaucrat, who “figure[s] Lecter for a queer” because “he likes all that artsy-fartsy stuff.”

Director Ridley Scott likes artsy-fartsy stuff, too. Here he lays on painterly cinematography, parts of an opera (lyrics by Dante!) written for the movie, and even Lecter presenting a longish slide show of Italian paintings. But all the high art looks like a rhinestone collar on this poodle, which makes Jonathan Demme’s drably efficient The Silence of the Lambs seem a masterpiece.

With that 1991 film, Demme began morphing from an idiosyncratic American artist into the well-meaning hack who made Philadelphia (1993) and Beloved (1998). Yet Lambs holds up better than I’d expected. The muted thriller pales beside Demme’s rock ‘n’ roll masterpieces Melvin and Howard (1980) and Something Wild (1986), but it shares their affectionate respect for regular people. Demme raises the emotional stakes beyond the thriller norm by gracefully linking the grief of the victims’ working-class communities to the death of Clarice Starling’s (Jodie Foster) cop father.

Cross-cutting deftly among the investigators, killer, and victim as they hurtle toward each other, Demme draws us into the sleuthing alongside FBI trainee Starling. Starling has three days to get from Lecter the information that will save the girl in the pit, which makes for a juicy conflict between well-matched adversaries. Lambs never transcends such genre goofiness as Lecter’s word-game clues and the skin-sewing entomologist/transvestite dungeon master–it’s still pulp, but brilliantly executed, weirdly humane pulp.

Hannibal begins 10 years after Lecter’s escape at the end of Lambs. He has been living uneventfully in Florence as art expert Dr. Fell, and Agent Starling has been promoted–and turned into Julianne Moore. The film opens with a drug bust in a Blade Runner-esque farmer’s market (with Richmond standing in for D.C.) that trigger-happy local cops turn into a bloodbath. Starling shoots five people in self-defense, including a female drug dealer holding a baby. Afterwards, Starling washes the blood from the baby in slo-mo with radiant, glinting water, the first of many pretty baptism shots that don’t mean anything.

Justice Department weasel Paul Krendler (Liotta) sees that Starling takes the fall for the carnage: He, not Lecter, is her adversary this time. In Lambs, Lecter taunted Foster about her “cheap shoes and good bag,” placing her “one generation from white trash.” Krendler takes up this line too, calling Starling “corn-pone pussy.” Tiny Foster, with her tomboy pluck and Southern accent, seemed vulnerable to such digs from the brilliant Dr. Lecter, but the wanly elegant Moore can barely manage a shrug when puffy frat boy Liotta goes, “Nyah nyah nyah.” Like most of the conflicts in Hannibal, this one’s a nonstarter.

Krendler turns out to be in cahoots with maimed billionaire Mason Verger, a hissing, uncredited Gary Oldman wearing what looks like a Chucky mask. Verger recounts in faggy-suave psychospeak how Lecter handed him amyl nitrate and a mirror shard, then convinced him “to peel my face off and feed it to the dogs. Seemed like a good idea at the time.” Verger has been plotting his revenge on Lecter for years by contracting with Aleutians who train killer whales. Nah, I’m just kidding. That would be silly. He’s really paying Sardinians who raise man-eating boars.

Verger and Krendler decide that Starling’s “distress” will lure Lecter back to the United States, which finally cranks up the shaky plot (why not keep Lecter close to the wild-boar ranch?). Meanwhile, in Florence, baggy-faced cop Pazzi (Lina Wertmuller regular Giancarlo Giannini) tries to bag Lecter himself. He’s a philistine, too, who needs the reward money for opera tickets to satisfy his beautiful young wife. He’s got “main course” written all over him.

Except Hannibal doesn’t cannibalize anymore. He kills Pazzi, but only because the cop is threatening his freedom. And he kills him with a baroque flourish–I guess because it looks cool. The death means nothing; after a long introduction to Pazzi’s wife, we never see her mourn, and in one of the few queasily right moments in the film, spectators laugh when Pazzi’s sliced-up body comes tumbling out onto the town square.

It’s like a comic book for young aesthetes. The omnipotent Lecter is the hero because he knows perfume, food, and art–and because he’s nice to Starling. Bad guys Verger and Krendler are mean and unchivalrous, if ineffectually so. Verger, the new, scarier-looking monster, takes his stab at tormenting Starling by asking her if she’s been saved, then observing plummily, “You can look at my face, yet you blanch at the mention of God.” Again, Moore looks about as rattled as a supermodel receiving subpar SAT scores.

Seeing this great actress stymied is the saddest part of watching Hannibal. At her best, Moore seems simultaneously drained and electrifying, as if she carries too much current to manage. After seeing her inhabit women as different as the bored, bourgeois Yelena in Vanya on 42nd Street and the coked-up porno den mother Amber Waves in Boogie Nights, I’ve wondered, “What can’t Julianne Moore do?”

Well, she can’t be Jodie Foster. And she doesn’t even get Foster’s chance to create her own memorable cop character. This year’s Starling is scripted as a depressed outcast nursing a crush on a psychopath. She spends hours looking at photos of Lecter’s victims and listening to tapes of their old conversations. At one point, she defends Lecter because he eats only rude people. The movie mistreats Moore all the way to the end. Reviewers have been asked not to reveal the shocking, post-wild-boar final action sequence, but I will say that our heroine lurches through it on stilettos, with her breasts falling out of an evening gown.

Lecter tormented Foster’s Starling by digging at her unhappy childhood; he keeps telling Moore’s Starling that she’s better than the rest of those schlubby feds. He seems to be right, but it’s hard to tell whether Liotta’s Krendler is a lone bad apple or part of systemic rot. The movie doesn’t know if it’s about corruption, art appreciation, or the love between a lonely cop and a misunderstood cannibal. And not until those last 10 minutes does it deliver an original horror-film shock.

Besides Alien and Blade Runner, Scott has made more than 2,000 commercials, so it’s unsurprising that Hannibal is full of shopping porn, including Moore’s last stand in Gucci and a noncomedic sequence in which Lecter buys shiny kitchenware to an aria. Yet Hannibal isn’t just crass–it’s also pretentious and literal-minded enough to stick a carousel in Union Station to make a chase scene more “Hitchcockian,” as well as to name-drop Stanley Kubrick with a Strauss waltz, Barry Lyndon-esque shots of tapestried mansions, and Verger smacking his lips to be fed like Malcolm McDowell in A Clockwork Orange. Scott strains toward a new genre–prestige horror sequel–but even all the cultural scraps can’t make a silk purse from this flesh-eating sow’s ear.