Hunger Hath No Conscience: Sex and Cannibalism in Film
“A kiss is the beginning of cannibalism.”
― Georges Bataille
Generally, when we think of cannibalism and the films that portray it, what first comes to mind are racist images of far-off tribes, feathered and painted as they dance around a giant soup kettle full of terrified white missionaries. Exercises that show cannibalism stories closer to home feature deformed backwoods freaks devouring grey flesh gruel to sustain their bodies for the horrific acts they’ll commit on unsuspecting city folk. These portrayals of cannibalism primarily aim simply to make us sick to our stomachs, and they work. Pushing for a disgust factor is an easy way to tease out a carnal reaction without really challenging an audience beyond having us deal with dry heaves. The taboo practice of eating humans naturally disgusts us so much that it’s not hard for filmmakers to use it to push that simple button. But, at its best, cannibalism in film can accomplish so much more than that.
Originally, the character of Hannibal Lecter (and especially the version from the NBC program that shares the character’s first name, the one played by Mads Mikkelsen) took a different direction with the consumption of human flesh. His was a high-class, high-quality addiction that savoured human beings as food. This iteration of Hannibal went all-out on the beauty and art of food, making viewers’ mouths water at delectable dishes of homosapien flesh. His were the kinds of meals where wine pairings matter, the types of dishes for which hipster foodies are willing to wait in line. Hannibal’s work was the food that makes you close your eyes and sigh and consider the existence of a divine being.
Cannibalism here was about so much more than disgust. It was a trick of reflection in the two-way mirror of desire and guilt. We could not help but yearn for the perfectly seared roast on the table even though we knew it was human. We stood face-to-face with the discomfort at the carnal reaction out of our control. We wanted to taste what we saw, and we couldn’t help but wonder what it might be like, how it felt and tasted, to eat a human being.
Hannibal might make us consider how we have so many food-related ways to describe our carnal and romantic attraction to people. In Archives of Sexual Behavior, Pfäfflin commented on the many phrases that exist in the English language to relate sex/love and consumption, including referring to someone as “looking good enough to eat,” that “the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach,” and describing a sexually appealing person as “sweet,” “juicy,” “appetizing,” or “tasty.” (Vorarephilia: A case study in masochism and erotic consumption, Amy D. Lykins) Could this linguistic kink exist because our reaction to food and sex are so linked? That the gratification we receive from both is really that similar? Some would think so. The consumption of human flesh when viewed as an allegory for sexual desire becomes much richer and more deeply satisfying, and there are several films that do communicate this just as well.
Starting off with a lighter expression, 2004’s Dumplings out of China features a cannibalistic addiction in the name of pure sex appeal. Aging women in Hong Kong seek out Aunt Mei (Bai Ling), who is renowned for her revitalizing dumplings made with a special ingredient—the aborted embryos she smuggles out of hospitals. Aunt Mei is her own best advertisement: toned and lean, showing off her clear skin and perky breasts which she dedicates all to the consumption of baby flesh. One woman in particular, Mrs. Li (Miriam Chin Wah Yeung), seeks her out most desperately. Mrs. Li is an aging television star subject to the too-true-to-be-trope husband with eyes for younger women. He’s seen frolicking around with his 20 year old mistress in wild sexual trysts while Mrs. Li pokes and prods at her wrinkles and aging body. In order to achieve her long lost youthful glow and his attention, she’ll pay any price—with her money or her morals—and she won’t be patient.
Like other cannibalistic films, Dumplings wants the easily squeamish to squirm, so it amps up the natural sounds of sex, as well as chewing and slurping of consumption as we and Mrs. Li come to terms with what she’s about to ingest. Director Fruit Chan doesn’t shy away from showing Aunt Mei chopping and dicing those strange tiny dino babies into savoury ginger-laden dumplings. There’s no subtlety or allusion here: vain and desperate women like Mrs. Li are willingly eating dead fetuses so their bodies will remain conventionally attractive. Though the ingredients and benefits are questionable, Aunt Mei prepares them with ritualistic perfection and takes great pride in her product. The demand is and will always be high as long as we live in a world that values women for their sexuality above anything else.
At the same time, We’re shown Mr. Li snacking on balut, duck embryo eaten from the shell. This accepted delicacy is well-known for acting as an aphrodisiac and inspiring virility in men. It is also curiously harder to look at than Aunt Mei’s well-formed dumplings. This poses a conflicting question of personal limits and morality. On the surface it would seem more horrifying if Mrs. Li crudely popped human embryos into her mouth like a bag of Cheetos, licking her fingers after every gruesome serving. But preparation makes all the difference—not necessarily by removing the disgust from the equation altogether but by hiding it behind art. When something is easier to look at, does it make it easier for us to accept? Does an attempt at achieving peak sexuality by women need to be dressed up to make it easier to swallow?
Not necessarily. In 2016’s Raw by Julia Ducournau, we see a film that doesn’t hold back with its portrayal of a young woman experiencing sexual awakening through cannibalism. When Justine (Garance Marillier) arrives to veterinary college, her hazing ritual rite of passage to the school involves a special kind of froshing—she’s expected to toss back a rabbit kidney as initiation. No big deal, except Justine is a strict vegetarian, presumably since birth. Not only would eating the rabbit be a moral transgression, she also doesn’t know how the act will affect her body. Here, the line between vegetarian and virginal is whisper-thin. For the most part, Justine sticks to her morals because that is what she has been taught: that it will keep her healthy, safe, and superior. But once she gives in and tastes flesh, everything changes. Suddenly, awoken within her is a craving she is both fascinated and repulsed by.
This awakening uproots Justine’s entire life, starting with her body. She becomes pale and dour over time and develops some gnarly rashes. She eats raw meat and pocket burgers from the cafeteria before moving on to more “exotic” fare. She lives in shame of her desires and remains unfulfilled in them, even as she surrenders to them in increasingly taboo ways. What she craves is flesh, in her mouth and between her legs. Suddenly her roommate Adrien becomes a walking beacon of relief, a target she hunts like a wild and cunning animal. She intends to devour him, one way or another. This desire is seen in the way Justine looks at Adrien across the university grounds, with such an intense physical longing that her nose begins to bleed. She is the predator, and he is the prey. There’s such a starkness here, as if Justine has jumped into an endlessly deep pool of desire after abstinence. It is overwhelming, raw, and pulsating.
Justine turns to autocannibalism during sex in order to achieve orgasm, no surprise given the very real connection between pain and pleasure. But for some, it goes beyond a nipple clamp or bite on the wrist. Vorarephile is the word for someone who gets sexual gratification from the idea of being consumed or by consuming others. Lykins, in her paper Vorearephilia: A case study in masochism and erotic consumption points to Armin Mewes as the closest approximation to vore in real life, specifically regarding his desire to consume other people so they could “stay within him forever.” Mewes, who met with a “victim” to dismember and eat his penis and ultimately his body, is mentioned in nearly every study regarding sexual cannibalism, for his frank fulfillment of his secret desire and his self-awareness.
It seems a common theme that examples regarding male cannibal perpetrators focus on an inability to connect with others, while those involving women are more about letting themselves experience their full emotional and sexual range. Justine has an intense need to experience the way that lovers connect in sex, but with something even deeper: a total devouring of the other. The sad truth is that it’s impossible in the way she would prefer. Because of this, Justine lives in shame of who she is and what she wants. She has to be free with herself in order to achieve the greatest height, but she can’t in fear of harming those around her or being discovered as having crossed her own—and society’s—ideas of morality.
There is one relief valve for the pressure that Justine faces; she does not live in complete secrecy. Her elder sister Alexia (Ella Rumpf) is the first witness of Justine’s carnal desires, which she recognizes in herself and helps to grow and protect. When Justine has her first taste of human flesh, she finds it by gnawing her own sister’s finger, which has been severed during a botched brazilian wax. Once she has recovered and accepted the reality, revealing their inherited kindred curse, Alexia begins to show Justine how she has managed to survive and fulfill her own bloody desires. Justine must learn to temper hers and hold back from allowing them to take over.
But what happens when they do?
Enter Claire Denis’ Trouble Every Day. Shane (Vincent Gallo) and June are on their way to Paris for their honeymoon, and for Shane’s secret side mission—to get in touch with Dr. Léo and his wife Coré (Béatrice Dalle). Coré is “very sick”, suffering from a malady that causes her to cannibalize her victims after having passionate sex with them. Her husband, presumably the cause of her illness, cares for her and cleans up after her sexual tirades. Our first interaction between them shows him rescuing her from her most recent escape, then riling her up sexually and locking her away in her room leaving her frustrated and unfulfilled.
Coré’s younger neighbours are fascinated by her situation and her sexuality. In a way, they become obsessed with her, casing the home and studying the doctor’s schedule. When they finally do break into the house, a scene of intense sensuality ensues. Barred behind wood, Coré lures and seduces the young man until he’s aroused enough to break the barriers with his bare hands to put them upon her. They begin to fuck and, inevitably, Coré eats him alive as he screams in agony.
Shane is obsessed with locating Coré, not out of fascination, but because he too suffers from the same problem, and not even the wholesome connection and love that he shares with his wife is enough to quell the hunger. He dreams of Coré covered in blood in drenched sheets while his wife smooths clean linens and smiles demurely. We see him unable to finish in bed with her because, as we’ll later find out, he fears what he might do to her in the height of passion. Instead, he chooses to finish in the bathroom (much to June’s dismay) and act inappropriately with other women. He gropes strangers and in a horrifying display of gynophagia, rapes and eats a hotel maid alive from the genitals upwards.
An orgiastic element of cannibalism has existed for centuries. In the Gimi culture of Papua New Guinea, women participate in plays performed during marriage celebrations where they “mimic their version of the [mother figure’s] cannibalistic feasting of the past with a dummy corpse. The whole affair is portrayed as an orgy in which wives and mothers dance around the crowd…shouting with joy and wailing and beating their breasts in sorrow the women dismember the dummy and fight greedily over the parts to be eaten.” (P. 76: Divine Hunger: Cannibalism as Cultural System) Common themes around cannibalism have always included incest, unbridled sexuality, and sexual aggression with no regard to geographical location or societal history.
It would seem that some people can never get enough of another. In this film, like love, even the intimacy of sex is not enough, Coré eats her victims alive but does so in great distress, experiencing a range of emotions throughout. It’s an action she desperately tries to stop but she is a victim to her own desires. We see her desperately nuzzling and kissing her lover/victim between tearing his flesh. She makes earnest attempts to stop herself but is unable. As a result of losing control, after her deadly feasts she can be found in a partly catatonic state, aware but out of control of herself. She speaks only once in the film expressing her desire to die. She is overwhelmed by her sexuality and her emotions.
The fear of what will happen when we let go is universal for the sensitive and self-aware. Many of us would like to be completely free sexually with another person but find ourselves unable for various reasons. Perhaps we’re self-conscious about our bodies and how they will betray us at the height of passion. Will we scare the other away? Will we consume them with our emotions and our hunger for pleasure? Perhaps we will cause them pain. The reality of sex can be ugly and painfully real. There is a kind of sex that requires a total opening of the self, a level of trust that can’t be reached with just anybody. This is a natural psychedelic experience that takes great risk but gives even greater reward, where two people become fully themselves together. It is easier to attempt to reach these heights alone through a masturbatory practice, but ultimately for those who lean this way, without reaching it with another person they will remain unfulfilled.
On the other hand, Spain’s Cannibal shows a much more stoic example of lack of sexual fulfillment. Carlos (Antonio de la Torre) is a calculated tailor, murderer, and butcher, keeping a fridge stocked with ample supply of human meat. But he shows no pleasure or emotion in his killing or his eating. It seems that no part of his process causes him any extreme emotion at all. He has become detached from himself and those around him; a pure sociopath. Unable to make a connection with a woman (“I’ve never had a girlfriend before”) he instead chooses to eat beautiful women instead of date them. After all, eating someone is the ultimate form of domination, and it’s so much easier than putting in the time. As he’ll later confess, he kills women whom he “desires with his whole heart”, specifically because of that desire. An incredible weakness lives within Carlos, one that remains untouched until he meets Nina (Olimpia Melinte).
Some believe that love is the ultimate connection and fulfillment with another person. But what if love isn’t enough? Carlos tells a victim, “Not wanting to learn to be alone is pure fear,” exemplifying his independence, but when it comes to connection with another he can’t even handle the intimacy of a massage. When he meets his love interest, Nina, he is torn between wanting to consume her as a meal or keep her as a lover. Carlos shows an obvious lack of ability to connect. Even after a painful opening of himself and a full confession, he is spurned by Nina and unable to fully relate with her.
Finally, for the “fact over fiction” crowd, the 2017 Issei Sagawa documentary Caniba profiles the infamous cannibal killer who ate a young dutch girl named Renée Hartevelt in 1981. Like Mewes, Sagawa identified a cannibalistic desire early in life. Sagawa prescribed to the belief that consuming someone meant you would inherit their traits; he selected Hartevelt for her beauty and the things he believed he lacked within himself. He was also sexually attracted to her and believed a natural consummation of that attraction to be unlikely. Sagawa’s cannibalism was overtly sexual, with long, drawn out discussion of his fantasies about biting into his victim’s butt and graphic description of rape.
Though controversial, Sagawa became a kind of celebrity in Japan, living off the notoriety of his crimes (he was found legally insane) creating manga and other paraphernalia of his sexual perversions and cannibalistic urges. Directors Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel make viewing Caniba as uncomfortable an experience as possible, showing Sagawa’s work and conducting the painfully slow interview through constant close-ups as the camera blurs in and out of focus. He speaks frankly about his sexual urges and the heinous acts he committed, and by the end viewing the documentary feels like complicity (or at least quasi-acceptance of) Sagawa’s actions.
The points and efficacy of these films are varied. For the thoughtful, these stories cause internal conflict about our own personal limits and beliefs. They’re well-layered stories and each a fantastic example of one of the many often overlooked gifts horror movies give us. In this case, insightful and creative filmmakers wanted us to consider the symbolism of the flesh and the act of eating it itself, to look beyond knee-jerk reactions and really wrestle with what we’re willing to accept, and what actions we take in life that symbolise our unspoken desires and taboo urges.
Pfäfflin, F., “Good Enough to Eat,” Archives of Sexual Behavior, April 2008, Volume 37, Issue 2, pp 286–293
Lykins, A. D., & Cantor, J. M., “Vorarephilia: A case study in masochism and erotic consumption.” Archives of Sexual Behavior, September 2014, Volume 43, pp 181–186
Reeves Sanday, P., Divine Hunger: Cannibalism as a Cultural System, 1986
Dumplings (2004) Dir. Fruit Chan
Hannibal (2013) Dir. Various (Bryan Fuller)
Raw (2016) Dir. Julia Ducournau
Trouble Every Day (2001) Dir. Claire Denis
Cannibal (2013) Dir. Manuel Martín Cuenca
Caniba (2017) Dir. Lucien Castaing-Taylor, Verena Paravel