A ticket to Verena Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor’s documentary CANIBA should come with complimentary wi-fi access. Traveling to Wikipedia is a must before, or even during the film, which presupposes knowledge – which I didn’t have – of its subject, Issei Sagawa. A horrible but fascinating man, Sagawa found infamy and minor celebrity for murdering and cannibalizing Renée Hartevelt, a Dutch woman whom he met in Paris in 1981.
CANIBA is a unique portrait of Sagawa, but right off the bat, it’s not for everyone…or really…anyone. The film opens, and spends much of its time literally examining Sagawa in closeup, droning on in medicated monotone, which he shares morbid experiences and fantasies. We see him undergoing physical therapy of some kind, receiving injections of what we can only assume is medicine to treat his enteritis, while he hugs a stuffed toy named Mr. Beaver.
Paravel and Castaing-Taylor don’t give the uninitiated much to go on, leaving the details of Sagawa’s story out of focus, much like the deeply unpleasant up-close photography. We get to study every pockmark, became intimate with his moles, and count the boogers nestled inside his nasal cavity. We see every crease, divot and peak, tracing roadmaps through the crevasses in his face with the rambling motor vehicles of our minds. It’s almost as if someone forgot where the zoom out button was on the camera, and possibly, how to use editing software, as we spend excruciating minutes of silence burning stares into Sagawa’s haunting visage.
Luckily, the monotony is broken up the middle with surprise clips of hardcore porno which due to his morbid celebrity, Sagawa was paid to appear in. There’s even bonus facial urination for those who appreciate an old fashioned golden shower. In true Japanese style, it’s covered up in pixelated mosaic, but it still catches you off guard. And I guess that’s the point – this is confrontational cinema.
Boring, but confrontational.
In addition to the pornography, there’s a lengthy scene of self-mutilation, as Sagawa’s brother pokes and prods himself with barbed wire and other sharp implements. Twisted shit runs in the family, apparently.
There are moments in CANIBA where you feel like you’ve been subjected to an elaborate Rick Roll, but with more perversion and less 80’s poppy charm. It has more in common with experimental film than conventional documentary – something like 1987’s The Cure for Insomnia. I can see why people walked out at screenings in Toronto and Venice. When I first read there were walkouts, I thought it must be due to the sickening subject matter, but turns out it’s just because the film is a load of old poopadoop.
The best bit comes when Sagawa shows us his hand drawn comic depicting the entire perverse act for which he became famous. I’d love to have a copy – it’s creepy and nasty as hell. Somehow, it got published… which, I guess shouldn’t be a surprise; this is Japan we’re talking about.
CANIBA, however, would be more interesting as a transcript. There’s not enough information here to justify the time spent suffering. Watching it at 2x speed might… MIGHT help make the experience more bearable. The film is an experiment, and if you enjoy cinema so challenging it basically takes a dump on your head (or a golden shower, as the case may be)… OR you have an interest in starting at a Japanese man’s face in closeup for an hour and a half, then I give CANIBA my highest recommendation.