Judge Adam Arseneau watched this film while eating fava beans and a nice Chianti.
She's dying to eat you.
Despite having the stupidest tag line ever conceived for a motion picture, Cannibal (a.k.a. La Peau Blanche or "White Skin") was released to accolade and critical acclaim in Quebec, even winning a Best First Feature Film award from the Toronto Film Festival in 2004.
Let's give this French-Canadian thriller a go, shall we?
Facts of the Case
Thierry has traveled from rural Quebec to the bustling city of Montreal to attend school and has found a comfortable little niche in town with his roommate Henri. An aspiring writer, Thierry feels he has little to offer the profession, being a fairly well-adjusted straight white male…how boring. His only noticeable quirk is a particular distaste for pale skin and redheads, as he finds the odd translucent nature of the skin reprehensible.
Imagine his surprise then to fall head-over-heels infatuated with a pale-skinned, red-haired beauty named Claire. Devoting himself to her pursuit, he begins to neglect his studies and his friendships. Henri notices something strange about the girl that Thierry refuses to acknowledge, an otherworldly quality that disturbs him. Having had a disastrous run-in with a red-headed prostitute who tried to slit his throat, Henri begins investigating Claire and her family—and what he finds defies explanation.
Set against the snowy vibrant backdrop of bustling Montreal, Cannibal is a uniquely French-Canadian take on a horror film, wound up tightly within the identity of the city itself. A city where cultural and racial politics are scalding hot issues, Montreal is unlike any other city in North America, utterly European in its architecture, attitude, and endless quantities of cafes, angry drivers, and strip clubs. If you've never been to Montreal, Cannibal will feel like a film that takes place in an alternate world. Really, though, it's just Quebec.
At one point during Cannibal, the cast sit down to watch David Cronenberg's Rabid, a cinematic allegory not lost on this particular reviewer. Beyond the obvious comparison of both being shot in Montreal, dealing with killer women and continuing a long tradition of Canadian horror films, both make perplexing muddles out of what should be brain-dead slasher films, turning them into gender-bending examinations of sexuality, body, and reproduction. It is difficult to get too involved into the specifics of Cannibal without spoiling the plot, but both films deal with a mutation of the feminine body that crosses sexuality and gore into a reproductive nightmare for the male sex. Because as every guy can tell you? Girls are scary.
For a debut film, Cannibal is an admirable effort, creating a film that works on issues of anxiety and dread rather than outright horror. A good thing, because the sequences of violence and action are poorly executed, often times hilariously so. Like most low-budget homegrown horror flicks, the last half-hour makes little sense as characters began to behave erratically in order to tie up loose ends. Two-thirds of the film is spent with its characters in disbelief, denying the odd events around them, and then, like flipping a light switch, suddenly all have accepted bizarreness as a fact of life. "Oh, okay, we suddenly have supernatural women to kill. That's cool."
I liked Cannibal and I admired its ambitions, but the film never really manages to thrill or horrify its audience. Fairly tame by today's horror standards, the film (at least judging by the ludicrous cover) seems to be poorly marketed as some sort of pornographic gore fest, or something. Well, it isn't. It never quite cultivates that Rabid level of dread and terror that Cronenberg does so well, but it certainly tries its best. I can get behind this kind of horror film. It is refreshing to see films that are intellectually disturbing rather than simply violent and gory, whether they succeed or not.
Lionsgate was thoughtful enough to include an English dub and, even more surprisingly, not a terrible one. Sure, it's a bit stiff and mechanical and unfeeling, but all English dubs are. I've certainly heard worse. The acting is competent all around and I particularly enjoyed Marc Paquet as Thierry, who is like a Bizarro Francophone twin of Tobey Maguire.
In terms of audio quality, I actually prefer the English dub over the native French-Canadian track, which suffers from a hissing treble effect from the environmental recording. In comparison, the English dub is smooth as butter, a bit quieter, and cuts out all the distracting noise. Both tracks have decent bass levels and make good use of the two-channel presentation.
I especially enjoyed the fantastic score, a blend of funky drums and walking bass lines interjected with contemporary jazz full of sycophantic piano and sweeping strings. Each scene gets paired with rapidly different and atmospheric styles of music, all perfectly matched.
The transfer is very solid, with great detail, black level, and color reproduction during brightly-lit scenes. During nighttime or dim scenes, the transfer degrades somewhat into oversaturated reds and graininess, but for a moderate-budget film, the presentation is quite effective.
Subtitles are a bit sketchy, with a few grammatical and typographical errors, but they do the job well enough. Sadly, the DVD contains nothing in the way of extras beyond the obligatory theatrical trailers to pimp the studio's wares.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The film has a lot to say on the subject of race and does it with the subtlety of a wrecking ball. Pretty much every cliché in the book is brought out and thrown at the viewer, for reasons that escape this reviewer. Had the issue of race relations been used more delicately, it could have created quite the interesting contrast in this essentially by-the-numbers thriller.
Unfortunately, the subject only seems to pop out to fill empty scenes of dialogue without having a grander purpose, save for some entry-level university cultural studies pandering. The only filmmaker talented enough to shove handfuls of racism down our throats and still come out on top is Spike Lee and he stumbles more often than he succeeds.
Not too shabby for a lower-budget thriller, Cannibal works some Cronenberg-esque anxieties of female sexuality, fear of the visceral, and mutation into a low-key horror film. A pseudo-vampire slasher film interjected with racial tensions makes for a quirky, original take on the horror genre, but the film stumbles towards the end, unsure of how to balance its ambitions.
For a debut film, there is potential here. It isn't a great film, but Cannibal will certainly appeal to people who like their thrillers low-key and subtle in nature.
"She's dying to eat you?" That tag line eats something, all right. Let's acquit the film and convict the marketers.
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