“Caniba” ranks among the most unpleasant movies ever made, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t see it. Véréna Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor — the directing duo behind the singularly immersive “Leviathan” — push the limits of documentary filmmaking even further this time around, albeit in a different direction: Their follow-up amounts to a feature-length monologue delivered by Issei Sagawa, who in 1981 killed and ate a woman named Renée Hartevelt. Chew on that for a moment: At a time when Errol Morris is facing backlash for giving Steve Bannon a platform in “American Dharma,” Castaing-Taylor and Paravel have done the same with an actual cannibal.
Sagawa, also known as Pang, was a 32-year-old PhD student at the Sorbonne when he lured his classmate to his Parisian apartment and shot her in the neck; Hartevelt accepted his invitation under the guise of translating poetry for class. He spent the next two days picking at her corpse (which he also raped) and was arrested while attempting to dispose of her remains in a lake. Declared legally insane at the ensuing trial, Sagawa was eventually deported to his native Japan and continues to live there as a free man due to legal loopholes.
“Caniba” isn’t the first movie about him, but it’s certainly the first to be filmed in such an uncomfortable manner. Shot entirely in close-up, with its subject’s face frequently blurred as he muses about the macabre and the mundane in roughly equally measure, the film makes no attempt to make any of this go down more easily. At one point we even watch as Igawa lies down in silence for several uninterrupted minutes. The 69-year-old dispenses many nuggets of wisdom throughout, ranging from “cannibalism is very much nourished by fetishistic desire” to “I like Disney,” but he can’t seem to keep up with his own thoughts — as though his mind is a fog that even he can’t fully navigate.
You won’t get much from the final 80 minutes that you didn’t from the first 10, and one can only imagine how many walkouts “Caniba” will inspire — it may have more business in a museum than in a movie theater. Few films ever released have had more self-selecting audiences than this one, which includes censored excerpts of the pornographic films Sagawa has acted in to make ends meet since returning to his home country as persona non grata. (Other odd jobs he’s held over the years: manga author, novelist, restaurant critic.) When “Caniba” screened in Venice and Toronto last year, some questioned whether it even needed to exist in the first place.
It’s a valid concern, but don’t expect the filmmakers to address it directly: “Caniba” features no explanatory text or outside voices of any kind. Those familiar with Paravel and Castaing-Taylor’s previous work as part of Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab are likely to give them the well-earned benefit of the doubt in at least understanding their latest project as a daring formal exercise, but anyone hoping to understand Sigawa as anything more than a deeply disturbed cipher will leave disappointed.
Sigawa’s brother Jun is there too, acting as both caretaker and sounding board for his ailing sibling. “I want to be eaten by Renée,” Sagawa says of his victim early on. “People must think I’m mad.” He’s right on the money there, and it’s one of the more lucid things he says — not for nothing was this man deemed insane by French authorities.
At its best, “Caniba” is another example of Paravel and Castaing-Taylor as one-of-a-kind documentarians; at its worst, it dispenses the notion that people who have committed horrific acts are inherently interesting. Sagawa is disturbed and alienated, but that doesn’t make him a compelling documentary subject in and of itself. Maybe that’s the point: Demystifying Sigawa takes away some of the near-mythic power that’s been attributed to him over the years.
“Caniba” opens at the Museum of the Moving Image in New York City on Friday, October 19.