P:O.V. No.4 - On metaphor in film

Film as metaphor

Cannibalism and the Serial Killer
as Metaphors for Transgression

Anne Marie Olesen


In the 80's and 90's, a remarkable number of artworks dealt with (and still deal with) either cannibalism or the psychopathic serial killer - or both in combination. The question is why?

I could perhaps call it a trend, but I won't. "Trend" suggests an arbitrariness, a possibility of unlimited replacement, which I don't think is the case.

I could perhaps say "the more extreme the better". But then I'd have to answer the question: Why is more extreme better? And I'd have to explain: Why these extremes?

And perhaps that's what I intend to do.

As the title of this article suggests, I want to argue that cannibalism (as an event, or even as the essential event in a given film) and the serial killer (as filmic sub-genre) can be seen as metaphors for transgression.

But first a few precautions must be taken.

It might seem trivial to mention this, but cannibalism and the serial killer are referred to here as visual metaphors - not linguistic ones.

Moreover I do not consider the metaphors in question to be specific for film. I might, for instance, interpret a literary work not on but including cannibalism in exactly the same way. What makes film especially interesting is that due to its form (as medium), it affects us in a more complex way than a literary work. And that film, still due to its form (but as institution), affects us in a more insistent or provocative way. You can close a book and leave it on the table for a couple of days because the phone rings. With cinema you can't do - or are not supposed to do (that's the code of a silent convention, which has a lot to do with film's potential) - anything but watch the film.

In the discussion which follows, I will use two feature films as essential examples of "film as metaphor". This does not mean that I claim to analyze and interpret these films exhaustively. Considerably more would have to be said if that were my intention.


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In talking about transgression (a metaphor itself?), I'm making use of a figure based upon Jacques Derrida's analysis of the logic of enclosure.[1] Investigating the conceptual structure of the frame in aesthetic discourse, Derrida finds that it is both fundamental to that discourse and absent from it. Fundamental, because without the idea of the frame, there can be no object of aesthetics. But - the discourse cannot theorize the frame. It can discuss the "outside" of the work of art (which comes into being once the concept of the frame is in place), and it can discuss the "inside" (what is proper to the work of art). But the frame itself escapes the categories of "inside" and "outside". As the discourse of aesthetics cannot allow a mediating zone between its two extremes (since that would call into question its own primary motive), the frame is repressed and becomes a supplement.[2]

Supplements are, generally speaking, 'dangerous'. They are dangerous because the area of interest (the "inside") depends for its very being on the conceptual operation of the frame; that is, on an operation that threatens the clean separation of "inside" and "outside".

Pointing to the frame - for example by calling attention to phenomena that do not respect the clean separation - is thus to question the purity of the "coupure pure".

I don't want to go any further into Derrida, but simply to make use of the figure: "inside"/"outside".

I believe that cannibalism and the serial killer (as metaphors) theorize that the boundary between the "inside" and the "outside", between the One and the Other, is not stable, not natural, not "God-given", and that - in a conceptual sense - it never has been. These metaphors show that the conception of the Other as radically different is a fiction.

The psychopathic serial killer

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The psychopathic serial killer film is a sub-genre of the horror film. In classical horror films there are two main figures: the human being and the monster. According to Robin Wood,[3] the monster represents suppressed parts; parts that the human being (or the culture) cannot tolerate. In symbolic form (or as metaphor), the horror film thus works through the return of the suppressed; it represents the struggle between the Id and the Ego. James Twitchell, in contradistinction, suggests that the monster does not represent the suppressed but rather the lack of boundaries. By disordering such culturally constitutive oppositions as human/ animal (the werewolf) or dead/alive (the zombie), the monster metaphorizes a "before-subject condition", a threatening and pleasurable state before boundaries and difference.[4]

In classical horror films the monster, in general, comes from "outside". It might be an animal (King Kong, The Birds), a demonic power (The Shining, Rosemary's Baby), a creature from outer space (Alien) or an artificial creature (Frankenstein, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde). The monster is a stranger, but it often appears to be quite attractive and gentle; and it can be eliminated.

Horror films such as Psycho and Chain Saw Massacre (to mention just a few) deviate from the usual pattern in that the monster does not come from "outside", but seems to be something like a psychic disease within or among us. Even though it can still be eliminated.

Some of the horror films from the 80's and 90's make another change (which applies to literature as well). The monster does not come from "outside" but from "within". It is a rational and intelligent human being, most often a white male in his 30's, well educated and presumably well functioning. No outer features indicate that he is a psychopath. But - and this is what I find especially interesting in a film like Seven - it can not be eliminated.[5] By making the monster supernatural, a stranger from "outside" and by finally eliminating it, the classical horror film set boundaries and created order. Being without narrative closure, without an unambiguous ending, the psychopathic serial killer film (and the splatter-film as well) states that the horrible and monstrous cannot be delimited. And it is perhaps because the horror film draws attention to unstable and permeable boundaries, that the sub-genre has had a rise in popularity parallel to the discussion of the postmodern.[6]

In the psychopathic serial killer film, the murders are committed in accordance with a system; they are founded on a kind of rationality. In Cape Fear[7] the motive for the terror is revenge. John Doe (Seven) kills in accordance with the seven deadly sins. In Copycat the killer copies the modus operandi of previous killers. In Manhunter, the killer just does not like women (I don't remember, but his mother might have treated him badly). This 'rationality' of the monster makes it possible to identify with him.[8] And it makes the game between the killer and the "opponent" (who is not the victim but the detective, the FBI agent, the psychoanalyst or whoever) a significant point.

A scene in Seven[9] makes this clear. John Doe gives himself up after what seems to be murder no. five, but he succeeds in making a deal with the detectives. He offers to confess his killings, if they agree to follow him to the last two victims. They agree to this. In the car the young detective (David Mills) triumphantly proclaims that they have caught him. But they did not catch John Doe - he gave himself up. And that's John Doe's point. By giving himself up, he manages to complete his system: David Mills, the one who considers himself to be beyond (that is "inside"), commits the seventh deadly sin. John Doe makes David Mills cross the boundary between normality and madness, between the One and the Other - spontaneously.

A previous scene sets this in relief. David Mills and William Somerset (the older detective) are having a beer in a bar after the fourth murder. The subject of their conversation is the killer's mental state. According to Mills, he's insane, different, "outside". (The point is followed up in the car scene. David Mills asks John Doe: "When a person is insane, as you clearly are, do you know that you're insane?"). According to Somerset, he's just a man. As he says: "We're talking about everyday life here".

Mills repudiates this standpoint and primarily ascribes it to Somerset's disillusion, his unwillingness to fight what Mills, relying on the boundary, defines as being "outside", as Other. Secondarily, but on a more profound level according to Mills himself, he considers Somerset's disillusion, his claimed insight, to be an excuse for leaving the city and his job in favor of a newly acquired house in the countryside.

The bar scene anticipates the final scene with a tragic resonance, but it also stresses the dominant figure or structure of the film: the mirroring of David Mills and John Doe.[10] David Mills fights the Other and so does John Doe - as his aim is to eliminate the deadly sins and thereby the "degradation of humanity into a subhuman level."[11]

In the final scene of Seven a cardboard box plays a significant role. The content of the box is never shown to the spectators,[12] but the size and shape enable us to guess what it contains. I find the box rather trivial as an effect, but it creates a wonderful suspense. A deliveryman brings it to the location. As his van enters at the left side of the setting, William Somerset leaves David Mills and John Doe, who are both situated at the right side of the setting. Somerset's receiving the box and opening it provides space[13] for John Doe to spin out - and enjoy? - his final act.

When Mills realizes that John Doe has killed his wife, he wants to shoot him, and who wouldn't? Somerset warns him not to - not because of the consequences but because of the game. If Mills shoots John Doe, John Doe wins. Mills does shoot John Doe, and the spectator's sympathy just goes to show how unbearably easy it is to cross the boundary.

Most of Seven is shot in an anonymous city where the rain constantly pours down. The two detectives move in a stylized noir-light penetrated only by their flashlights. The darkness stresses the atmosphere of destruction, and the darkness combined with the sparse revealing light creates a perfect balance between veiling and unveiling. The unveiling always happens on the background of something still being veiled.

At first it seems paradoxical that the only scene with sunshine and dry weather is the last one - which furthermore takes place in the open space outside the city. On second thought, there is a point here: everything comes (out) in the light.[14]


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The question of the boundary between the One and the Other is raised with eating and with the meal. Eating presupposes a clear distinction between the subject eating and the object being eaten, but the act of eating abolishes the distinction. The subject incorporates the object, the object stays in the subject and mixes with it, thereby obliterating the subject/object distinction.

Food and meals in art can basically be seen as metaphors for drawing and crossing boundaries.[15] So can cannibalism. But cannibalism makes a difference. Taking part in a meal means eating of the same but not the same, and in particular - not eating one another. You do not eat the person you are eating with.

It is natural to eat but it is civilized (or cultural) to take part in a meal, because in the process you refrain from eating one another. Thus cannibalism metaphorizes the break down of civilization, the dissolution of culture into nature.

The Cook, the Thief his Wife and her Lover[16] is a brilliant example of how food, the meal and cannibalism work as metaphors for transgression.

The universe of the film is centered on a restaurant, le Hollandais, with its kitchen, dining hall and lavatory. Outside the kitchen door is a parking lot, and additional settings are a book depository and a hospital. These six rooms are coded in accordance with various cultural systems.

The parking lot is blue and in the first shot a yellow line functions as an orthogonal in a picture, composed with a central perspective. Later on the parking lot is shot from another angle, which makes the yellow line disappear as orthogonal. Instead, focus is on a scaffold and a neon sign saying LUNA.

The kitchen is green - the color of nature and hope. The upwardly striving architecture, the reverberation and the singing of the androgynous dishwasher, suggest a cathedral. The kitchen is the seat of manufacturing, of nature and - as the cook must be characterized as a culinary artist - of the creative spirit. As such it alludes to Romanticism.

The dining hall is red - the color of violence, sexuality, and blood. The interior is made up of sumptuous food-arrangements (referring to still-life), heavy red draperies, a painting of Frans Hals,[17] and the table where the "thief" (Albert Spica), his wife (Georgina) and his gang of pimps and Mafiosi are having their dinner.

The lavatory is white (overexposed) and very sterile. There is no trace of feces or anything that is usually to be found in a lavatory.

The additional rooms, the hospital (populated by nurses with traditional Dutch headgear) and the book-depository, are respectively yellow and golden-brown (referring to the Golden Age).

The whole concept of the film is culinary. There is food everywhere, and everything is eaten - even items that are not supposed to be eaten. Pup (the dishwasher) is forced to eat bottoms - including the bottom of his belly. A debtor is forced to eat dog shit, Michael (the lover) is forced to eat his books and Spica ends up being forced to eat Michael. When Richard (the cook) is asked how he determines the prices of his dishes, he answers: "I charge a lot for anything black. Grapes, olives, black current. People like to remind themselves of death. Eating black food is like consuming death. Like saying: "Death, I'm eating you." Black truffles are the most expensive. Caviar. Death and birth. The end and the beginning. Don't you think it's appropriate, that the most expensive items are black? We also charge for vanity."

Another system that structures the film, is the distinction between the raw, the cooked and the rotten.

According to Julia Kristeva, the abject is "anything" that the body secretes: blood, vomit and excrement. As a secretion, the abject is at the same time part of and not part of the body. The nastiness (or 'unheimliche' in a Freudian sense) of the abject is caused by its not being an object. The object is definitely not the subject, but by being secreted, the abject is neither object nor subject, but both at the same time.

The not-usually-eaten items, that are eaten in The Cook, the Thief his Wife and her Lover, the abjects, make us aware of the boundary between inner and outer, between subject and object, as being unstable and permeable.

The camera-movements are another principle of structure. Usually the camera moves in straight lines - either laterally following persons (even through walls) or at right angels to this movement - almost drawing the persons through the monumental doors placed in a row and flanked by curtains. Thus the camera-movements create a kind of grid (miming the scaffold at the parking lot and metaphorizing the rationality of the West) and make the whole universe of the film theatrical, artificial.

The deviations from this rigid camera-choreography attract attention. When Georgina points the pistol at her husband, the camera turns - in a bow movement - behind Spica, who falls as he is shot. Thus Georgina's line "Cannibal!" turns out to be directed to the spectator as well as to Spica.

As I haven't space enough left to go into further details, I'll get to the point. The structures of this film - the structures that mime the way the Subject tries to order and control an otherwise chaotic reality - are, throughout the film, shown as fictions.

The symbol of hierarchy is the vertical axis and the symbol of its breakdown is the circle (up and down meet in the same spot). In the film, the circle's concretization is, in formal terms, the sequence of rooms. From the parking lot, with its dog shit and garbage, one 'rises' to the restaurant, but the culmination of this ascent is a toilet![18] In terms of content, it is the decentralization of Spica. In the first scene he places his anachronistic car on the axis of symmetry; he puts up his name in the kitchen (his name is A. Spica but the letters go A. Spic - aspic - which means meat jelly or snake. Meat jelly is a jelly that surrounds pieces of meat. In a metaphorical sense it surrounds or controls everything. And it is as flabby as Spica's stomach. A snake is circular when it bites its own tail: A-spic-a), but he ends up as a cannibal.

And so does the spectator.

The first line of the film is "Open your mouth." It is directed to a debtor but it is also an order to the spectator. We "eat" through the film and we are sent through the digestive system - from cooking to evacuation - but upside down.

In an interview, Peter Greenaway says: "Once we've stuffed the whole world into our mouth, we end up eating ourselves," and he further states that the film is (partly) meant as a commentary on the consumer society.

To me, cannibalism is a metaphor for the breakdown of culture; for culture turning itself into its opposite: nature; and therefore for transgression.


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The psychopathic serial killer and cannibalism are not the only metaphors for transgression. In an article entitled "Between laughter and horror" (my translation),[19] Anne Jerslev argues that the splatter sub-genre also theorizes fluid and unstable boundaries. I believe, however, that the metaphorizing of the splatter-film differs from the two first mentioned. The overwhelming amount of blood, the torn limbs and dissolved bodies do make us aware of our fragility and mortality, but the metareflexivity of the sub-genre, its consciousness of genre-conventions, invites an ironic distance - without the thrill disappearing.

According to Anne Jerslev the priority of visual effects over the cost of narration, the humorous metareflexivity and the exaggerated abjectal symbolizations, which activate the pleasure of anxiety, appeal to 'big boys'. In contradistinction, the serial killer and cannibalism - especially in feature films like Seven and The Cook.... with their thorough aesthetics, their intertextuality and classical frame of reference - appeal to an adult and more (or less) intellectual audience.

Transgression per se is not a postmodern phenomenon, but a metaphorical expression of transgression, in the form of the serial killer or of cannibalism, certainly is.

1 Jacques Derrida: La vérité en peinture. Paris: Flammarion, 1978.

2 I'm partly quoting Mieke Bal and Norman Bryson: "Semiotics and Art History", in The Art Bulletin, College Art Association, 1991.

3 Robin Wood: "An Introduction to the American Horror Film", in Movies and Methods II, ed. Bill Nichols, University of California Press, 1985.

4 Anne Jerslev: "Mellem latter og gru: horrorfilmen og ungdomspublikummet", in Øjenåbnere, Dansklærerforeningen, 1996.

5 This applies as well to David Lynch's cult TV-series Twin Peaks, for a TV-series, Profiler, now running on Danmarkskanalen and for several so-called splatter-films.

6 See note 4.

7 Cape Fear is not a psychopatic serial killer film but I include it in the genre because the violence and the psychological horror are of the same kind.

8 In Manhunter the detective's ability to identify with the killer or enter into the killer's mentality is exactly what leads to his arrest.

9 David Fincher, 1996.

10 Which is just another way of talking about transgression.

11 Lars Movin: "De syv dødssynder" in Øjeblikket, no. 26, 1995/1996 (my translation).

12 This is an important point! The content of the box is not shown, and neither are the 'things' that John Doe left behind. Our imagination fills it and is good at doing that.

13 Space taken in a spatial as well as a temporal sense. The spatial distance between Somerset/Mills and John Doe allows Mills not to know what the deliveryman brought. The temporal distance (crosscut) makes the suspense.

14 The aesthetic, which is generally conceived of as being postmodern per se, was, I believe, introduced by Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, 1982). In Blade Runner the final scene, where Deckard and Rachel have left Los Angeles and await pure happiness, is shot in the daylight. Seven twists the point.

15 The food still-life reflects the perishableness, the boundary between life and death. The Supper reflects the crossing of that boundary.

16 Peter Greenaway, 1989.

17 Frans Hals: Sct. Georgeordenens officersbanket. The painting mirrors the Last Supper as Spica's table does - but in a secular and vulgar manner.

18 As light, the whiteness of the toilet also functions as the golden background color did in the icons of the Middle Ages - as divine light. Heaven as a toilet!

19 See note 4.