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Susan Sontag's 'Duet for Cannibals' Delves into the Games People Play

Duet for Cannibals (Duett för kannibaler) (trailer screengrab)

Is Susan Sontag's Duet for Cannibals a study in personal human behavior? Or is it an allegory of the seductions of fascism and power?

Duet for Cannibals
Susan Sontag

Kino Lorber

26 May 2020


Susan Sontag was so intellectual that she had to make her first film in Sweden, and here's Duet for Cannibals (Duett för kannibaler) 50 years later, lovingly restored by the Swedish Film Institute and arriving on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber.

The single stark page of opening credits gives plenty of time to look it over as we hear some kind of monotonous hammering to frazzle our nerves. Because we don't know its origin, we can't say whether this pounding is threatening or benign. It's not quite as regular as a metronome or clock, though this Ingmar Bergman-influenced movie will indeed have scenes with ticking clocks in the sound mix. This type of hammering repeats as a motif in different contexts and returns near the end in a surprising yet inevitable manner.

In the audio commentary by Wayne Koestenbaum -- which is like eavesdropping on the tantalizing and unfinished free associations of your brilliant friend who's read everything but isn't bothering to Google all his stray facts -- he compares the sound to the Commendatore's fateful knocking at the end of Mozart's opera, Don Giovanni, a sound that signals the hero about to be dragged down to Hell. That would link the hammering with those moments when two characters read aloud from Dante.

Good night, we haven't even gotten past the credits! This is what Sontag does to us.

Film Strip by joseph_alban(Pixabay License / Pixabay)

The story is about a young couple and an old couple. We open on the morning activities of the young couple. Ingrid (Agneta Ekmanner) is hammering up a poster of Arthur Bauer (Lars Ekborg), some esteemed revolutionary political theorist displaced from Germany, as we'll learn. Tomas (Gösta Ekman) shaves before a mirror (lots of mirrors here) prior to heading over to Dr. Bauer's to be interviewed for a job as his assistant or amanuensis.

Adrianna Asti (IMDB)

Emerging from the shadows just long enough to be introduced and throw a heavy object through a window is Bauer's Italian wife, Francesca, played by Adriana Asti of the huge butterfly eyes. Her discomfiting behavior is explained as not exactly some kind of sickness. She will be the film's primary vamp, and her degree of control and power remains elusive and undefined. She doesn't react badly to getting slapped, and she has no trouble ordering her husband to lock himself in the closet.

As the film continues almost to imprison us in this ill household, the behavior of Bauer and Francesca becomes increasingly erratic and confounding. Sometimes it's violent, sometimes grotesque, as when Bauer dashes out of the room for prolonged offscreen (thank goodness) puking sessions, the better to argue that he's being poisoned. These extended vomit sounds are both a disgusting and funny punctuation of the meal's decorum. The viewer quickly cottons on to the idea that the Bauers amuse themselves by playing games with Tomas and increasingly with Ingrid as she's introduced to the menage.

I shouldn't give the impression that it's a nightmare house. People are constantly having fun and enjoying themselves, if rarely all at the same time. The primary seduction occurs between Francesca and Tomas, beginning with a scene where Francesca wraps bandages around his face and kisses him in a visual moment partly borrowed from the iconic painting of René Magritte's The Lovers (also called The Lovers II, 1928). This image has an uncanny accidental resonance during Covid-19. Tomas then playfully adopts the pose of a stalking Boris Karloff in The Mummy (Karl Freund, 1932), to Francesca's giggles. The film is full of such playfulness.

It's Tomas, meanwhile, who's most often taking off his clothes. Duet for Cannibals will leave us wondering about the extent to which Bauer's passive-aggressive moves mark an attempted seduction, and perhaps the extent to which his relations with Ingrid function as a displaced desire for Tomas. One detail about Bauer and Ingrid, revealed casually, will reframe our understanding of how Tomas got this job. Later, Francesca's patronage of Ingrid will include flirtation and remaking in her own image, perhaps in playful, sexy homage to Bergman's Persona (1966).

Character actor Gunnar Lindkvist appears in one scene as a seemingly homeless bum, mentally ill, eating in a restaurant and arousing Tomas' disgust. This man is clearly the low-rent analogue to the cosmopolitan Bauer. Tomas has no trouble pushing away this man, but he'll find it impossible to push away Bauer or to keep away from his household for long.

Is this a study in personal human behavior? Or an allegory of the seductions of fascism and power? For example, the displaced German Marxist and his Italian wife may remind us that Germany was briefly allied with Italy, and that it was currently enamored of communism. Koestenbaum suggests a link between Tomas knocking on the door of Bauer's house (a "Bauer-house"?) and precocious 14-year-old Sontag and friend dropping by for tea at Thomas Mann's house. Good call, though Sontag's encounter with exiled German greatness allowed for no iconoclasm. "Like two teen-age boys driving away after their first visit to a brothel, we evaluated our performance," wrote Sontag.

She also wrote: "How I wished I could just be left alone in his study to look at his books." I know what she means, and this is one of those movies where I wish the actors would get out of the way so I could read the spines on the packed shelves. The clarity of the restoration allows this, and those shelves are perhaps Sontag's pornography, leaving aside the skin on display. Most of the books seem to be English. Whose are they? Standard props from the Swedish warehouse?

Spotted on the bookshelf: S.N. Berhman's Duveen, Gunnar Myrdal's Asian Drama, Ernest Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea and Green Hills of Africa, The Collected Stories of Katherine Mansfield, Brendan Behan's Borstal Boy, Raymond Chandler's The Long Goodbye, Karl Popper's The Open Society and Its Enemies, T.S. Eliot's Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats, Anne Morrow Lindbergh's Gift from the Sea, Lawrence Durrell's Bitter Lemons and The Dark Labyrinth, Tolstoy's War and Peace, Mao Tse-Tung (not the Little Red Book) and I swear, the old paperback I used to have of Batman vs. 3 Villains of Doom.

How much of what happens in the film is "real"? At least one bedroom transformation can only be a fantasy, probably an undifferentiated dream, and a couple of other moments cross stealthily into the surreal. Is it possible that the Bauers even have a salutary effect in mind, as they first disrupt the younger couple's relationship and then mend it anew? The last reel contains the most extremely turbulent and implicitly funny shenanigans, confirming the film as a comedy of manners with happy ending -- if you can believe it.

Duet for Cannibals belongs to a privileged list of 1960s films in which relationships, and even what's happening on the story level, are defined or undermined by gamesmanship. Identities transfer or merge according to how the situation evolves enigmatically, requiring the people to respond to the mystery of human behavior in front of them. The mystery of another person's response triggers the mystery of one's own response.

The most famous examples of such films are Last Year at Marienbad (L'Année dernière à Marienbad, 1961), directed by Alain Resnais and written by Alain Robbe-Grillet; The Servant (1963), directed by Joseph Losey and scripted by Harold Pinter; the aforementioned Persona, a film that so impressed Sontag she had to write about it; to some extent Pier Paolo Pasolini's Teorema (1968); and the film that Sontag's movie most superficially resembles in story, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf (staged in 1962, filmed in 1966), written by Edward Albee and directed by Sontag's college buddy Mike Nichols.

The idea that our natures and identities are fluid and dependent on context, such that we're at the mercy of how others impose their emotions and demands on us and vice versa in an ontological moebius strip, was explored by Witold Gombrowicz in his seminal avant-garde play The Marriage.

Although written shortly after WWII, which Gombrowicz spent in Argentina, this play was first performed in 1960 in Poland, then to acclaim in 1963 Paris, and then, significantly, in Stockholm in 1966, directed by Bergman's mentor Alf Sjöberg. By the way, a mentor of Gombrowicz was Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz, the rediscovery of whose dramas caused a sensation in postwar Poland and Europe. One of his standard devices was characters who come back to life.

Voracious culture-vulture (cultural cannibal?) Sontag may well have been aware of all this and was certainly aware of the films we've mentioned. Perhaps it goes without saying, so we'll say it, that Jean-Luc Godard is another influence on Sontag, especially the use of posters and having characters read aloud from books. Among the most significant influences is Bertolt Brecht, name-dropped twice so we won't miss it, the deity of emotional distancing in drama, the desire to be self-conscious enough to "alienate" the viewer from falling unthinkingly into escapism and force us to evaluate what we see critically while it's going on.

This teasing and hermetic film about the traps of ambition and personality and the confusion of sexual desire, shot in crystalline black and white by Lars Swanberg, may send viewers scurrying for interpretations. Far be it from us to recommend one, but this roundup of critical reactions on the Criterion website is useful, even though this release isn't from Criterion.

A bonus feature is the videotape of an episode of Camera Three interviewing Sontag and Agnès Varda on the occasion of their films' showing at the Seventh New York Film Festival. Varda's film, Lions Love, has been on DVD and is upcoming on Blu-ray in Criterion's complete Varda box. I kept thinking I just wanted to see the women interview each other without the mediation of official male pontification (doubled, the regular host and then the guest interviewer), but I guess such a thing was inconceivable.

By the way, the festival's opening night film was Paul Mazursky's Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, which has superficial affinities with Sontag's film without ever crossing the sexual line; it's all tease in a way that Sontag's tease, paradoxically, isn't. The interviewer mentions that another film at the same festival was Marguerite Duras' Destroy, She Said (Détruire, dit-elle). If only that one (and her other films) emerge on Blu-ray, we'll have the trifecta. Let us hope.

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