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February 7-13, 2007

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'Hannibal Rising'

Keith Hampshere/Courtesy the Weinstein Company
Lecter of the Godless: Gaspard Ulliel tries to look like a potential face eater in Peter Webber's not-so-shocking prequel 'Hannibal Rising.'


'Hannibal Rising': Hello Clarice, I'm Hannibal's inner child

By Richard von Busack

IT IS SAID of Dr. Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs that he once bit a person's tongue off without any considerable rise in his heart rate. After seeing 21 years of movies about him, the doctor's malign influence must have rubbed off. I can now watch him rip people up without any kind of flutter in my pulse. Maybe it's his many imitators that make him seem less than the epitome of evil today. The success of his adventures spawned a thousand dullsville direct-to-video serial-killer opuses in which the antiheroes enjoy unlimited bank accounts and the ability to walk through walls, turn themselves invisible and pick locks by staring at them or something.

Hannibal Rising is the dreaded prequel to the Lecter saga. In the lead, observe Gaspard Ulliel—a pompadoured, sensually faced boy with a crescent-shaped divot missing from his left cheek. When he was a child, World War II ran him out of Lecter Castle (now we learn that he is Lithuanian royalty); his parents were killed by getting between a Stalin tank and a Stuka dive-bomber. During the winter, his sister was taken under circumstances we can readily imagine but that the doctor-to-be has blocked out psychologically.

Escaping from a Stalinist orphanage, Lecter hops over the Iron Curtain; his progress is delineated in the old-fashioned device of a glowing line crossing a map of Europe. Then he arrives in France at the Chateau Vigo, where his slinky, widowed Japanese aunt, Lady Murasaki (Gong Li), takes him in, instructing him the art of bushido and the correct method of dressing Japanese swords with oil of cloves. (Everything but the Dr. Evil-style meat helmets, in short.) The mysterious decapitation of a grossly obese local butcher draws the attention of Inspector Popil (Dominic West from The Wire); somehow the flic also got wind of another murder in Lithuania, where a local man had been found dead, his cheeks missing, cooked with forest mushrooms. Popil comments about his quarry: "What he is now, we have no word for it, except 'monster.'" Which seems like a pretty defeatist thing to say just on the basis of two murders. Where was Maigret?

Thomas Harris' script includes nothing as brain-frying as the finale in the sequel Hannibal. Wrestling with an unfamiliar tongue—or rather, speaking English; this isn't a safe idiom to use when describing Dr. Lecter—the French actor Ulliel misses the well-spoken qualities that made us forgive Anthony Hopkins' Lecter just a little. Director Peter Webber of Girl With a Pearl Earring leads us through a story that's more drab and sordid than wicked and shadowy. Even the sight of the villainous Rhys Ifans getting his chest shaved by a bruised prostitute doesn't have any requisite kink (don't all actors do this now?). And the finale takes place aboard a greasy river barge, whence the reference to L'Atalante, when Jean Vigo's name got dropped earlier. Clunky lines ("Memory is like a knife"), insufficiently grisly death traps and a too-low-class gang of villains (surely Lecter should be grazing on the upper-crust) are bad enough. But the fatal blow in this movie is suggesting that an imitation Jerzy Kosinksi childhood trauma made Hannibal who he was. Lecter was far more interesting just being evil for the fun of it.

Movie Times Hannibal Rising (R; 117 min.), directed by Peter Webber, written by Thomas Harris, photographed by Ben Davis and starring Gaspard Ulliel and Gong Li, plays valleywide.

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