Demme: The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

Manhunter was a horror masterpiece but The Silence of the Lambs may well be the greatest horror film ever made. In its emotional complexity, its beautiful command of mise-en-scene, its staggering and spectacular set pieces, and the sheer terror that emanates from its central character, Hannibal Lecter, it’s endlessly rewatchable, and galvanising on every single watching. The plot has become the stuff of cinematic folklore, quoted and requoted in a thousand different ways – FBI Agent Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) is instructed to consult with incarcerated serial killer Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) to glean his insights into Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine), another serial killer who has been stalking and skinning young women. Both Clarice and Hannibal get more than they bargained for – Clarice, by finding herself taken aback at the sheer complexity of this singular sociopath; Hannibal, by finding himself forced to confess to Clarice, by the iconic conclusion, that “the world is more interesting with you in it.”

In many ways, The Silence of the Lambs was the pivotal moment in public fascination with the serial killer and sociopath as new categories of human beings. During the 70s and 80s, these twin figures had percolated their way into popular discourse, but they reached their zenith in Demme’s film, which established them as new cultural mythologies who would dominate the 90s in American media. For Silence presents us with the serial killer as the apex of exotica, the most arcane curio of humanity imaginable – so marginal, in fact, that any classification is a mere formality, unable to do justice to the full complexity of the condition (“they don’t have a name for what he is.”) This is particularly the case with Hannibal, whose pathologies are never ascribed to any conventional psychological cause, unlike Buffalo Bill, who represents an older conception of the serial killer – hammier, and with a backstory and etiology that makes Hannibal’s intensity and opacity even more terrifying by comparison. Similarly, Dr. Chiltern, head of the FBI psychiatric unit, played by Anthony Heald, sees Lecter as his personal specimen, like the overseer at a zoo, or an old-fashioned circus compere – a missive from another era of sociopathic drama who also makes Hannibal’s strangeness all the more vivid.

Along with arriving at precisely the right moment to speak to the frenzied rise of serial killer discourse, The Silence of the Lambs also apotheosised the transition from subjects to bodies as objects of fixation and fascination in America cinema. Both obsessions were symptoms of high postmodernism, which by transforming the body into another fungible commodity, produced a proportionate will to reimagine the body as a repository of arcane secrets – either in a reaction against the postmodern, as a retreat to a messier and less knowable body, or in collusion with the postmodern, which designated bodies as the arbiters of the commodity fetish at its most mysterious. The Silence of the Lambs oscillates between both possibilities, but remains steadfast in its commitment to plunging the depths of what bodies can reveal, most flamboyantly in the moths that flicker and flutter throughout the narrative. Buffalo Bodies literally buries these moths deep in the bodies of his victims, but they also symbolise his own yearning for bodily transfiguration – specifically, his desire to involute his body, and display his viscera to the world, in his own version of entomological metamorphosis, a postmodern twist on the ancient art of “reading” organs for the future hidden in the present.

In other words, The Silence of the Lambs understands bodies as essentially and queerly mutable, liable to revolutions and convulsions that can only be aestheticised by serial killers, and interpreted through the procedures that go into apprehending serial killers. That makes for a film in which all three of the main players are coded as queer, albeit in different ways. Hannibal is like a character from a Tennessee Williams play, exuding a homosexual gentility that hides in plain sight, and that immediately allows him to intuit a queerness in Clarice, who he forces into a tell-all relationship in which he provides forensic insights in exchange for intimate disclosures of the most personal moments from her West Virginia childhood. Clarice, meanwhile, only touches a man twice in the film – first when she brushes fingertips with Hannibal, and second when she shakes her boss’ hand at the end, although she does come close to a third moment of contact when Buffalo Bill circles her in night goggles, reaching his hands to within a couple of millimetres of her face. Tacitly romantically linked with another FBI agent, she has no chemistry with men in the film, except as mentor and mentee – and except, of course, for her rapport with Hannibal, the most vivid relationship on display here.

Of course, the most overtly queer character in The Silence of the Lambs is Buffalo Bill himself, who embarks upon his serial killing spree as an expression of frustrated trans identity. While Hannibal goes to some pains to insist that Buffalo Bill is “not a real transsexual,” he still instructs Clarice to look into people who have been refused sex reassignment surgery, just as Bill identifies and dresses as a woman more frequently as his serial killing career reaches its climax. It’s hard not to read this as transphobic, or the entire film as homophobic – Demme did so, resorting to Philadelphia as an informal apology – but the depiction of the queer and trans body is also too mercurial and arcane here to be limited to phobia either. Instead, the trans body, in particular, feels like a harbinger of a more modulated and distributed bodily future – a relic from the future, if you will, that speaks to similar desires for transfiguration in Clarice herself. It is these yearnings for metamorphosis, which propelled her from the depths of West Virginia to the halls of Quantico, that signal her queerness to an approving Hannibal.

As emblems of an as-yet unformulated future, the queer triad of The Silence of the Lambs are distinguished by a preternatural sight. This is clearest in Lecter’s unblinking eyes, a stark contrast to the cross-eyed colleague who hits on Clarice, with all the incompetence of an ancient heterosexual male gaze. Yet this gaze also rebounds off Hannibal, Buffalo Bill and their victims in the second-hand spectacle of Clarice and her colleagues staring at images that defy belief, from the photo of a nurse who was attacked by Hannibal, to the skinned body of one of Bill’s victims. Hannibal asks, “don’t you feel eyes moving across your body, Clarice?” and the film also brims with the sense that these serial killers are on the verge of abstracting and apotheosising altogether into a networked hive-eye, not unlike the film development plant where the Tooth Fairy turns out to work in the closing twist of Manhunter. When Lecter says that he wants a window in exchange for his work on the case, it feels like he’s gesturing towards a future conception of the window – the virtual window of the desktop computer, for example, that Anne Friedberg identified as one of the perceptual pivots of the 90s. Later in the franchise, in Red Dragon, Edward Norton’s Will Graham offers Hannibal such a computer (even though the action putatively takes place before The Silence of the Lambs) but for now this preternatural apprehension takes place primarily through smell. From the way Hannibal first reads Starling’s scent, to his unfailing nose for blood, to the paste the FBI agents have to put on their nose to avoid the stench of one of Buffalo Bill’s victims, the film yearns to transcend sight and address the body with something closer to perfume, in order to evoke a perceptual threshold, glimpsed only by its two killers, that exceeds its cinematic vocabulary.

Like Manhunter, this perfumery crystallises around the proposition that serial killers are preternaturally more attuned to the postmodern hyperspaces that had flooded American cities and cinematic depictions of them by the early 90s. Interestingly, this doesn’t involve sustained cityscape scenes, as occurs in Mann’s film, so much as the enormous hyperspatial fortifications that are erected around Lecter. This infrastructure becomes a secondary spectacle in itself, especially since we never see him transported from place to place – just installed in one tableau after another. Arcane ceremonies surround these installations, which sometimes take the form of entire structures, and sometimes take the form of bespoke body suits, but all evoke the sociopath as a new national security threat, most memorably when Lecter “meets” with a Republican senator under full military guard at an airport hangar. The last of these hyperspatial fortifications – the last time we see Hannibal imprisoned in the entire franchise – is the most flamboyant; an enormous cage in the centre of a stately ballroom that positions him as both an exquisitely exotic specimen and priceless work of art.

Since Hannibal does manage to escape these hyperspatial fortifications, space itself is gradually displaced and involuted over the course of the film, by way of a series of extraordinary set pieces that utterly confound inside and outside. Space itself starts to shed its skin – or slacken its skin, in the same way that Buffalo Bill chooses larger victims so that their skin slackens before he removes it. This link between skin and space is made most literally during Hannibal’s escape, when he convinces the police that he is not only hiding within the building, but within the very core of the building, inside the elevator shaft, by skinning the face of one of the attending police officers and using it as a disguise to ensure that he is transported out by ambulance attendees. Likewise, Buffalo Bill’s climactic act of skinning is prefigured by the most iconic twist in the film, in which the FBI surround what we assume to be his house, as Clarice tracks down what appears to be a fairly unpromising lead, only for Demme’s misdirected montage to reveal that it is in fact Clarice who is outside Bill’s door. The last of these spatial slippages occurs in the final shot, in which Hannibal casually strolls down a street in the Caribbean, a few metres behind an unsuspecting Dr. Chiltern, and the camera pans back to hold the scene for the duration of the credits. In this closing image, Hannibal reverses all the confinement handed down by Chiltern into a tableau of unbearable openness – and extraordinary richness in terms of its world-building, its narrative possibilities.

About Billy Stevenson (930 Articles)
Massive NRL fan, passionate Wests Tigers supporter with a soft spot for the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs and a big follower of US sports as well.

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