CANIBA WAV D: Véréna Paravel and Lucien.

CANIBA WAV D: Véréna Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor. France. 95 min. Sep 10, 9:30 pm, AGO Sep 12, 10:15 pm, TIFF Bell Lightbox 3. Rating: NNNN

In movies, cannibalism is usually presented as historical or allegorical rather than as something contemporary or literal. Caniba is a cinematic rarity for a number of reasons, but most of all because it examines the topic in a modern context and with a formalism as extreme as its subject.

This non-fiction film explores the life of Issei Sagawa, a Japanese man who killed and partially ate his Sorbonne classmate Renee Hartevelt in 1981. He was declared legally unfit to stand trial and thus avoided prosecution. Upon returning to Japan, he lived off his notoriety and, now in his 60s, is largely incapacitated from a stroke and residing with his brother, Jun, in suburban Tokyo.

As with their GoPro-shot 2012 fishing doc Leviathan, directors Paravel and Castaing-Taylor get as close as possible to their subject – in particular his face and jaw – in a series of roving, fuzzy and fleshy closeups. They never zoom out to provide any background detail, but that’s not to say there’s no context. A disclaimer sets up the film and declares that Caniba does not seek to “legitimize” Sagawa’s crime, after which audio from an archival news report goes into more detail.

They also cut to a porn film starring Sagawa and watch as his brother leafs though a graphic novel about the crime. Jun is disgusted, yet seemingly unable to put it down. Then, in an unnervingly extended and brutally visceral twist we learn the brothers have more in common than either of them realize.  

Whether fiction or non-fiction, films about murderers must often rebuff claims of exploitation or sensationalism, but Paravel and Castain-Taylor instantly head that off via their approach, which is not only uncommercial but practically an endurance test for the audience. This is an “Are you in or are you out?” kind of film that questions how the siblings’ upbringing may have shaped their sexual proclivities.

After considering hyper-specific and taboo (and criminal) sexual urges at such close range, you begin to ponder their origins more broadly. And just when you think you’ve seen it all, the directors introduce a third character whose intensely alive face essentially reflects, like a funhouse mirror, these questions and desires around consumption back at the audience – the most horrifying twist of all. | @kevinritchie

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