The critically acclaimed director of The Silence of the Lambs, Beloved, Philadelphia and Stop Making Sense – to name only a handful of the work produced in his lifetime – Jonathan Demme has passed away, as such I felt obliged to write a piece on one his works, and one of my all time favourite films, The Silence of the Lambs, the film that in many ways is seen as his magnum opus and the highlight of both his and Anthony Hopkin’s career. Based on the book my Thomas Harris, which I’m afraid to say I’ve yet to get around to reading, tracks the efforts of Agent Clarice Starling (played by Jodie Foster) to interview famed serial killer and cannibal Hannibal Lecter (played by Anthony Hopkins). Lecter’s insight might prove useful into an active serial killed named ‘Buffalo Bill’, who skins his female victim’s corpses.
The film begins with a feeling that shall remain with the viewer throughout, that of paranoia, of a certain unease and uncertainty, that at all times our very movements and those of our protagonist Agent Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) are being scrutinised. This in a sense is Demme’s portrayal of everyday sexism, utilizing the male gaze as a means to extrapolate on workplace and frustratingly commonplace misogyny. From the absolute beginning Starling is being followed – by the camera – in the woods where she is undergoing FBI training, she’s then told by what seems to be a superior that she is to meet with Jack Crawford (Scott Glenn), after an oppressively masculine gazed elevator ride to Crawford’s office, she is met with a wall of photograph’s of Buffalo Bill’s victims, but her viewing is interrupted by Crawford’s entrance. Crawford insists on informing Starling that she is top of her class and whilst nonchalantly relaxing back into his chair, he remembers Starling from his seminars – “You grilled me pretty hard as I recall on the Bureau of Civil Right’s record in the Hoover years…I gave you an A.”. The first of many times in which Starling’s natural talent for her career is patronized, demeaned and looked down upon due to the fact she is a woman, Demme makes no attempt in making this a subtle gesture throughout the film. Starling is thus informed she is to interview Lecter, though it’s assumed he wont talk.
“Oh he’s a monster! A pure psychopath. So rare to capture one alive. From a research point of view Lecter is out most prized asset.” – Frederick Chilton
Chilton’s first sentence encapsulate his entire being throughout the film, a slimy figure, who, in general preys upon others force his own personal gain. For those of nuance and critique such as Lecter and Starling this is apparent almost instantly, as it is to the viewer, he speaks of Lecter’s ‘capture’ as he licks his lips, you can tell he sees fame and fortune in his hopeful attempts at understanding the famed Hannibal Lecter. Chilton makes a pass at Starling, which she of course refuses – whilst seemingly holding back vomit – due to her professionalism for the job at hand. As they make their way to Lecter’s cell past multiple barred doors and guards Chilton speaks of the rules of engagement when it comes to Lecter, he shows Starling a photograph of a woman Lecter ‘got to’ one time after he feigned stomach pains:
“When the nurse leaned over him, he did this to her. [pulls out photo] The doctors managed to reset her jaw, more or less. Saved one of her eyes … his pulse never got above 85, even when he ate her tongue.”
I believe the last part of that line perfectly represents the utter depravity of Lecter’s mind, a man who’s gone so far in, he’s come out the other side with the understanding that what he does is ‘fine’, and shouldn’t worry him in the least. The majority of their walk is lit by a bright red light. At this point we meet Barney, one of the guards who works in Lecter’s block, the last friendly face before the madness.
Starling’s first meeting with Lecter is acting on a different place, Hopkin’s mixture of subtle aggression and frustration of the cage, along with his myth-like-perception and charisma make him a peculiar ‘villain’. A villain one knows at their very heart could destroy them in a heartbeat, those villains who brandish weapons, guns and armies are no match, kill me with a bullet and I’ll be alive no more. Allow Hannibal Lecter into your mind and one will be wondering the halls of insanity forever, your temporal existence pulled apart, your personality deconstructed, and at the end you’re cast aside, a mere puppet to the master.
I’m going to post the link to the scene here as my writing cannot do it justice: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QU8jKn7sMwU
Starling returns to her training, awaiting more condescending gazes from her male FBI colleagues, even after her confrontation with an insane famed cannibal. As she was leaving Lecter’s block Miggs, who resides in the cell next to Lecter’s throws his semen at her, which in an absurd way is the tug-on-the-thread which leads to Buffalo Bill’s capture, as one thing Lecter cannot stand is rudeness and bad etiquette, as such he screams for Starling to come back and gives her a subtle hidden clue as to the whereabouts of some information, the clue isn’t actually the clue he directly gave, but one hidden in her understanding of Lecter himself:
“Listen carefully. Look deep within yourself, Starling Starling. Go seek out Miss Mofet, an old patient of mine. M-o-f-e-t. “
Starling believes “yourself” is too ‘hokey’ for Lecter and as such comes across the Your Self Storage company. The continues to the location of the company and searches a storage garage under the name Mofet, which contains, amongst other seemingly expensive and luxurious items a severed human head in a jar. She returns to Lecter with haste to discuss her discovery. She figures at the name Lecter gave her was an anagram, leading to the fact Lecter himself rented that garage, a test, for a bright mind. He hands her a towel from his cell via a metal shoot, as she begins to dry her Lecter is already at the back of his cell, in an instant. Part of Lecter’s character will always remind me of The Judge from Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, the viewer is never entirely sure how much of what their seeing is a myth, Lecter is pure-psychopath, has almost extra-human animalistic strength, is exceedingly intelligent, charismatic, the ability to smell a tumour inside one’s stomach (from the book), dexterity and heightened perception, the brilliance is in the fact all of things together are extremely unlikely, yet not impossible, what we’re seeing is something we don’t want to be, a killer who’s not a brute, the violence isn’t the point, the domination seems to be mental; becoming a toy as soon as you meet a certain person, a simple “Hello” and you’re in their domain.
We learn the severed head belongs to one of Lecter’s previous patients Benjamin Rasdale, to Lecter a ‘garden variety manic depressive’ “tedious, very tedious”, who became Lecter’s experiment after he missed 3 appointments, though who killed him? “Well, who can say really…”Lecter presses Starling about the fact Crawford ‘likes’ her, making her feel more and more insecure, though it appears to the viewer this is in no way the same way in which those at the FBI gaze at her condescendingly. It becomes clear Lecter knows who Buffalo Bill is, and is more than likely the same person who decapitated his patient, however, he refuses to allow Starling the knowledge as “All good things comes to those who wait.” Lecter is intelligence in a cage, he is existentially bored, he wants a view with a tree, possibly water, he wants to be away from Chilton, in small part to Lecter’s charisma and Hopkin’s skill, one often falls into becoming slightly sympathetic of Lecter’s situation, as he is not crass or rude, not violent (yet).
We cut to Bill abducting a new victim, via pretending he is handicap and getting them to help him move furniture into the back of his van. An oppressively strong man, with a need for women of a certain size. After this short scene Crawford and Starling are travelling to a new victim’s funeral, wherein Starling is belittled throughout, with Crawford wanting to discuss the crime privately, away from Starling, she might be too precious for such a discussion. During the funeral Starling has a memory of her father’s funeral, her father a police officer and inspirational figure in her life. Starling then needs the local law enforcement to leave so the FBI can take care of the case, which means she needs to ask a group of male law enforcement officers who are in their own town to leave, she does, and the camera pans to a group of 15 or so middle aged men staring down at Starling, looking confused, looking to one another as to whether the request is serious. The difficulty and frustration of Starling’s current situation is brought up to the fore, one wants to scream at the room, allow them to acquire our perspective, but alas, a few nods and shuffles, and Starling’s polite demands are met. Once they’ve left Starling begins to examine the body, noticing there’s something in the victime’s throat, something everyone else missed, a bug cocoon. They leave and Crawford mentions that him wanting to speak privately aggravated Starling.
THE MOTH AND BILL:
Starling takes the cocoon to two specialists, one of which hits on her, they identify the moth as the Death’s Head moth, which only live in Asia. And within in America they’d have to be specially raised…”Somebody loved him” the specialist says to the dead bug:
The moth on the poster is the death’s head moth, but the usual skull shape on their body is replaced with Salvador Dali’s photographic artwork In Voluptas Mors, which he made in collaboration with Philippe Halsman:
In Voluptas Mors could possibly be translated to say “In pleasure, there is death,” or “Voluptuous Death.” A linkage between sex and death, it’s important here to not just think of ‘sex’ as the sexual act, but one’s sex e.g. male, female etc. which can be linked to Bill’s disorder. Note: I’m not going to go too far into Bill’s disorder, there’s many, many articles and write ups discussing what it disorder it is specifically, and I don’t want to get caught up to correct terminology of a fictional serial killer’s mental disorder; however, I will accept that correct and un-bias portrayals of disorders in film is important (which is why I hate Split (2017) so much). As such, I’m going to add here a poignant quote from this article: http://www.thesociologicalcinema.com/blog/the-not-so-hidden-transphobia-in-silence-of-the-lambs
“Jame Gumb’s (Buffalo Bill) gender identity is handled in a number of very problematic ways. First, her character is a classic example of the killer transgender trope, also famously present in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. Transgender women are often represented as psychotic killers as a lazy method of responding to mainstream society’s fear of gender nonconforming people. This popular trope in film reinforces the idea that being transgender is unnatural and perverted, and pathologizes gender fluidity. It’s a stowaway on the Hollywood global distribution machine, reaching into countless theaters and homes around the world and embedding transphobia in the minds of a wide array of viewers.”
Meanings of the Moth:
LITERAL: When performing an autopsy on one of Buffalo Bill’s victims, the coroner finds an object lodged in the victim’s mouth. He removes it. It’s a brown pupa. He cuts it open, revealing a moth. We later discover the Buffalo Bill has a pupa breeding room at his home, where thousands of butterflies and moths flutter about.
FIGURATIVE: Buffalo Bill has an obsession with moths because they represent what he wants for himself. Moths begin as caterpillars, but then enter a cocoon and emerge as fully-formed moth. He is a man who wants to become a woman, but was denied a sex-change operation. Now he murders women and collects their skin to create a “woman suit” – a cocoon for himself – which he can use to become a woman.
Back to synopsis:
Starling offers Lecter a transfer to another prison, with a view of a woods and access to books, Lecter’s eyes light up at the thought of it, Starling continues to explain that alongside this, for 1 week of the year Lecter would get to go to Plum Island, and be free within its limits, walk on the beach and swim in the ocean…under swat team surveillance of course. She hands him the Buffalo Bill case file and the non-negotiable offer, if Catherine Martin (the woman who Bill abducted) dies, the offer expires. Lecter notices Plum Island is a research centre “How nice…” And we begin quid pro quo, something for something:
And Lecter continues to pick and pick and pick.
We cut to Bill’s famous “Put the lotion in the basket!” scene. Where Bill continues to torture his victim. Cut back to Crawford teasing Hannibal about the fact there never was a deal, he’s glimpsing at a pen, Crawford pushes for Bill’s real name, Lecter lets them know his first name is Lewis, but he’ll only tell the rest in Tennessee to the Senator herself. And so Hannibal Lecter dons his classic horror getup, the barred mask, the man who bites, the animal evolved, pure bound animalistic terror. Crawford searches for his pen as to sign a contract, it becomes clear Lecter has stolen it. Lecter tells the Senator (Bill’s victims mother) all she wants to know; quid pro quo…of course.
Lecter gets his demands and is moved to the top of a courthouse. Starling meets him, he’s reading, it’s peaceful. He knows it’s her without turning. She returns his drawings. At all times, whilst talking to Lecter, he is in charge. Lecter discusses the fact all Starling needs to know about Bill is within their case file, they have all they need, just not the means to work it out, they haven’t the time…but Lecter has all the time in the world, in a cage. The quid pro quo continues, prodding deeper into Starling’s psyche, her memory of the lambs. Lambs of course act as innocence, with Starling attempting to intervene, to help save those who cannot save themselves, Starling is making it her duty to stop the screaming of the lambs. Killing Bill, it seems, will stop the lamb’s screams. Lecter hands Starling her case files, alluringly stroking her finger as he does, the romantic side of their relationship is extrapolated further in Hannibal.
Cut back to Hannibal enjoying some classical music in his new cell, as he’s being brought his second dinner…lamb chops, extra rare. They begin the cuffing routine, not before we see Lecter remove a bobby pin from his mouth, more than likely a piece of the pen he stole earlier. Lecter is about to escape his cage, the scene is set for what is, in Lecter’s mind, a moment of beautiful brutality. The cops place down his dinner, being asked by Lecter tactfully to mind the drawings. A cuff to a cop’s arm, a bite to the face, mace to the eyes, a baton repeatedly over the other’s corpse. Lecter in a moment of sublime over his victims, a vicious animal freed, he finds a switch blade:
“Ready when you are…”
Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs, is a master-work, between social commentary, ecstatic moments of gothic horror and charismatic drama, one finds themselves sucked into multiple visions of a world. Morality, immorality and pure chaos combine into a theatrical experience of a grinning horror. Demme’s use of eye-to-camera contact suffocates the viewer, one feels as if they’re confronted with Lecter, they are to answer to him, to give him something, something is owed to merely be in his presence. With the villain in the background one only feels unease at their lack, where are they? What are they up to? You want Lecter in sight. Starling and Lecter both alienated from the world’s they inhabit, Lecter from his deluded interior, he cannot connect to people, and Starling alienated from the male world of police enforcement. With a prior tension before meeting Lecter that makes one jump upon seeing him for the first time, with claustrophobic close-ups of conversations making one feel at once at home and a stranger in the story, a symbolism that doesn’t descend into pretentiousness, a straightforward narrative that’s simple yet haunting, incredible performances and a sense of lingering pressure, a pressure one is unsure as to whether or not its going to be relieved even if the case is solved.