wanting, having, being, destroying

There’s a direct visual quote from Persona (1966) in the second season of Hannibal, Bryan Fuller’s ill-fated, gregarious romp about the eponymous cannibal played by Mads Mikkelsen and his nemesis/soulmate played by Hugh Dancy. Just like in Persona, we see each actor’s face reflected, halved, and stitched together down the centre — Mikkelsen’s serenity hiding hilarity, Dancy’s reserve hiding the rangy nerve of a middle animal on the food chain. The new unnerving homunculus face suggests the characters’ superimposition and dependency. Mikkelsen and Persona’s Liv Ullman even have slightly alike, eyebrowless Scandinavian faces. Hannibal can never go as far as Persona with this type of experiment, since there’s not enough runtime in a television episode to play the same conversation twice.

I’m attracted to readings of fiction that suggest lightly and tastefully that the characters have the same type of limited, ominous self-awareness of their nature that we all do of our own. Few characters in Hannibal, other than Hannibal and Will Graham, show much consistent interiority. The effect is of a pageant directed by Hannibal himself; his personal tastes in music, art and colour dominate the cinematography. Other characters struggle to depart from their assigned roles. There’s often a faint look of confused distress in their eyes as they recite lines that nobody but Mads Mikkelsen could deliver as if they were real speech. (Ullmann’s Elisabet Vogler, to suggest a Saussurian structuralist contrast, doesn’t speak at all.) Graham is the most successful challenger to the simulacrum, but his victory is pyrrhic. Even the show’s name could be taken not to be synecdoche, like a sugar jar labelled SUGAR, but as description, like a sugar jar labelled JAR.

Of Persona, Susan Sontag wrote: “The mood is one of desperation, in which all attributions of voluntariness seem superficial. All we are given is a set of compulsions or gravitations…” In Hannibal, the layers of compulsion are triplicate: not only does the compulsion of the characters to the story echo the compulsion of our lives to the larger forces at play in the world, but also, in the middle, you have the sense that one character in the story is compelling all the others into his own personal script.

The Persona shot is an interesting moment in this context, because Hannibal, as directed by Hannibal, actually abhors all things contemporary, even their most established and respected representatives. While it indulges itself with perfume-commercial CGI and transitions that have a superficially postmodern sheen, Hannibal himself only loves art and music from before the invention of the automobile; you can’t picture him buying a Rothko over a Raphael. He goes to the opera, not to the cinema. The experimental in Hannibal can only be surface-level and momentary. The intrusion of Persona is also the intrusion of another aesthetic sensibility to unsettle the status quo.

Another aesthetic exemption to Hannibal’s dominion is in Brian Reitzell’s score, which veers between baroque pieces for clavier and beautiful, unsettling dark-ambient electronica. Music is already outside the film-world by its non-diegetic nature. Here, I feel the effect of the music is to suggest a layer of unbridled emotion of which Hannibal himself, in my play-reading here, is not aware and over which he has no control. The unconscious, in other words. I often try to describe Persona to people as a movie that is essentially about trying to capture the machinations of the unconscious on our behaviour, and the way it drives us without our knowledge or consent. (More “compulsions and gravitations”.)

This score at times shows very strong influence, or at least a similar symbolic ecosystem, with Persona’s astonishingly contemporary music by Lars Johan Werle. An example of what I mean is in the scene in the second season of Hannibal when Graham kills a man with his hands. Both of the scores rely on dissonant, skeletal xylophone trills, throbbing drums; the spikes of other instruments, seemingly environmental noises, that create the impression you are hearing the world around you intrude under the music of your own wringing restlessness.

Persona haunts Hannibal in many ways that are interesting to contemplate, despite the loss of nuance that occurs in the transliteration of the themes to primetime TV. Both these pieces are about two people of the same sex who are drawn into a spiral together and doom themselves by their attempts to resist and sublimate their homosexual desire in a variety of ways, rather than acting on it. Both use the syntax of psychoanalysis and the visual language of analyst-analysand to make the case–Hannibal more literally but with much more CSI clumsiness. In Hannibal, this forbidden desire stands in for the temptation to act on base immoral impulses, and particularly, you could argue, the temptation to abuse structural power. In Persona, the forbidden desire is instead co-positioned with the forbidden desire of women to depart from the gendered life-path set out for us; and the impossible desire to have one’s life make sense and mean anything at all.

There’s not a one-to-one parellel here. It’s not clear whether Elisabet or Anna is the cannibal, at least in my readings. Meanwhile, Hannibal allows Graham control briefly, for its own amusement, but there’s never any real doubt about which way the power dynamic flows. Graham can drag Hannibal off a cliff, but he can never humiliate him or strip him utterly of his self-assurance, which would be worse than death. It’s not the characters who correspond, but the type of relation that occurs between them. And at any rate, a characteristic of both the works is the way the two characters find their identities blurring as a result of their infatuation. Elisabet is Anna is Hannibal is Graham. Is Alana is Margot, in those cross-cut sex scenes.

These scenes demonstrate one crystallization of the alternate ways that the main dyad of each work seek to avoid admitting their yearning: fucking each other’s lovers. There’s a triangle sex scene in each piece where the members of the couple are put in the bedroom, or at least in the bedroom image, with a third person they’re using in their unarticulated relationship. Other ways to pretend you aren’t in love: hurting one another; manipulating one another; pretending to be one another; pretending to be one another’s siblings; pretending to be one another’s parents; hating one another; hating one another’s lovers; trying to eat one another.

The fact that eating is always metaphorical sex creates an odd thematic vise for Hannibal, because we first see him eating only people he hates, who he finds vulgar. Will explicitly contrasts love-cannibalism with Hannibal’s degradation-cannibalism when we see his first victim. “This girl’s killer thought that she was a pig.” And nevertheless, Hannibal seems totally ready to eat Graham through every other episode of the show, even though we are meant to believe that his affection for Graham is genuine, in his way. He digs in to get at Graham’s brain in “Dolce” with all apparent eagerness.

On the surface, the idea that his ultimate desire in that moment is to humiliate Graham, rather than exalting him or consuming him, seems at odds with the elevated, romantic way Hannibal treats people he seems to like, and it doesn’t track with the tone of the scene. I don’t think this inconsistency is a specific purposeful choice, but it creates a complex statement nevertheless. It’s as if he doesn’t know what to do with Graham but to eat him. Humiliation and exaltation and consumption are melted into one hot impulse. Or as if for Hannibal, any relationship can only be consummated with destruction, whether the impulse toward the other is love or hatred. Degradation is another way of sublimating desire, attempting to loosen its hold on you: to make the object of desire into something deprived, pathetic, repulsive, over which you have complete control. Of course, it’s nothing new for a man to want to degrade what he desires. Dworkin would probably tell you men can do nothing else.

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So, my point is that the two works conceptualize and structure their depictions of homoerotic desire in similar ways. The two modes of relation in a couple are enmeshment and differentiation. Either you are two complements who constitute a new body twice the size (yin and yang; men are from Mars, women are from Venus) or you are conspecifics and you merge together to form a new body the same size as the original, with your prior parts dissolved into one another. Your identities and faces blur and overlap. It’s easy to see how enmeshment and homoeroticism might naturally be associated in the thematic well of the world: it’s right in the Greek prefix, hetero-/homo-. Call Me By Your Name.

Further, in both works, the forbidden homoerotic desire can’t be spoken aloud. The shame is too great, or else what is desired simply can’t be imagined. It has to be manifested instead as a shifting kaleidoscope of other relations which become increasingly surreal as the effort required to disguise the central impulse increases. And this specific desire stands in for all else generally that we don’t permit ourselves to recognize, or are constitutionally incapable of recognizing, and turn away from.

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(An Aside About Horror

Another important thematic structure in Persona, which is more explicitly political, has to do with another moment of contact with the unimaginable: confronting or failing to confront the absolute black horror of the world at its most terrible. Or at least, this is how Sontag and I interpret the scenes of suicide and war: “Unlike Godard, Bergman is not a topical or historically oriented filmmaker. Elizabeth watching a newsreel on TV of a bonze in Saigon immolating himself, or staring at the famous photograph of a little boy from the Warsaw Ghetto being led off to be slaughtered, are, for Bergman, above all, images of total violence, of unredeemed cruelty. They occur in Persona as images of what cannot be imaginatively encompassed or digested, rather than occasions for right political and moral thought. In their function, these images don’t differ from the earlier flashbacks of a palm into which a nail is being hammered or the anonymous bodies in a morgue.”

In general, horror operates at its most sublime when it is interested in speaking to, or more properly speaking around, this evil that “cannot be imaginatively encompassed”. The only way to catch a glimpse of the foundational horror of our existence is to demonstrate toward it with surreal tortures. And indeed, whenever I pitch Persona as a bridge movie for people who mostly watch modern blockbusters, I pitch it as a horror film. In the last few years, Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria has dream sequences that are potentially descended from the beginning and ending collages.

In theory, Hannibal, with its unbelievable corpse-tableaus and its omnipotent psychopath-prince, has the opportunity to provoke this awesome sense of beauty and dread in us that only occurs when the presented image is so far beyond expectation that it shocks the mind into a faint awareness of all else that lies where our human understandings can’t follow. If there is one total failure of Hannibal, it’s that it rarely manages this trick. Particularly in later seasons, death becomes merely a meaningless operation that one meaningless character perpetrates on another in the orbit of the Hannibal-Graham twin star.

However, there are a few sequences in Hannibal that really manage to yank on the subconscious. For me, by far the worst is the segment in the second season when we realize that Hannibal fed an ear down into an incapacitated Graham’s stomach by physically forcing a piece of tubing down his throat. This is filmed as a disconnected memory so traumatic it rends reality, a ghastly oral rape accompanied by the cyborg sounds of crunching plastic. It will sound strange to say that there’s an uncharacteristic restraint to this sequence: among all the bombastic acts of torture committed in Hannibal, the ugliness and DIY simplicity of this one make the tube-feeding feel most like a real act that occurs to a real person. I feel compelled to mention this because despite all my other criticisms of Hannibal, and despite the much better and more various films I have watched since I first encountered it, if all the context of the meaning of the act is allowed, I think it’s still one of the single most horrible things I’ve ever seen. I almost literally can’t think about it for too long. My attention only travels its edges each time I try to turn toward it, as if I’m a child being gentled away from the crowd on the street around the red imprint of a suicide.)

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Toward the end of Hannibal’s first season, Graham, increasingly losing his bearings in an unreal landscape brought on by Hannibal’s medical manipulation, brings an escaped killer to Hannibal’s parlour. He hallucinates this man is a second killer, impossibly back from the dead. (By the way, if there were really as many serial killers operating in the continental United States at any one time as is implied in Hannibal, surely we’d all be dead.) He begs Hannibal to tell him if his vision is real. Hannibal tells him nobody is there at all. Graham instantly slips into a seizure. The camera longingly rests on his wrecked, convulsing face as his eyes roll back in his head. Hannibal, peering into the unresponsive white gaze, lifts a hand to touch his cheek.

When I first watched Persona, I felt strongly that the bare-chested, towheaded child with glasses who appears at the start and end of the film must be a girl. Perhaps I’d seen Tomboy too recently. I interpreted this figure as young Anna, or her inner child, or what have you. (The child and Anna have the same haircut, and Anna puts glasses on once later in the movie to examine Elisabeth’s letter.) She, too, touches the face of Elisabeth, projected and inert on the screen.

These are two moments in which a reckless freedom is bestowed on the suppressed desire. To reify it by speaking it aloud would be unbearable, but as long as the beloved cannot feel the touch, there is no possibility s/he might flinch away.

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