By Gabby Ferro
As the film opens, the atmospheric score is playing as the protagonist Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) is fighting hard to complete a complex obstacle course. One that Joanthan Demme, the director of the film, explained was representative of the complex journey she must go on throughout the rest of the film, as she struggles to find out the truth behind the serial killer, Buffalo Bill. This propels you into the mind of Clarice Starling, a character that is given psychological depth, respect and takes the audience along with her on her disturbing yet gripping journey.
The camera work is one of those elements that make it so special. The camera moves around quite freely, and gives incredibly claustrophobic close ups. Especially in the scenes where Clarice is talking to Hannibal (Anthony Hopkins), the camera goes closer and closer to her face, you can almost see her skull. You can physically see how Hannibal is getting inside her head, trying to break down the barrier she puts up as he tries to find out information about her personal life and her past.
Clarice is training to become a member of the FBI, and she is sent to talk to the criminal Hannibal Lecture, who is in a high security prison. He is a cannibal and very dangerous. Dr Frederick Chilton is the man that guides Clarice to Hannibal’s cell. He calls Hannibal a monster, which is interesting as the film makes it clear that it views Dr Chilton as a monster himself. He is very unpleasant, sexist, and talks down towards Clarice, which makes the viewer see him as a pig. This is where you begin to see the film’s feministic tones; it is showing what kind of sexism and prejudice Clarice has to face as a female police officer. It is also showing those who display traditional and negative views of women to be as small minded as they really are (rather than take the side of misogyny as some more old – fashioned films have done).
The film shows Clarice as a very competent, brave and heroic female hero, showing that women too can be effective in roles that were conservatively thought to be reserved for men. It is as Jodie Foster stated, “A film about one young woman trying with all her might to save the life of another young woman” which is in itself subversive. On another level, with Clarice as the heroine in such an intense, compelling, psychological thriller illustrates that women can carry a film and for that film to be just as interesting as it would be if it were a male protagonist. This is in part thanks to the extraordinary performance from Jodie Foster who is both vulnerable yet incredibly tough. She shows just the right level of emotion and leads the audience with her on Clarice’s journey every step of the way.
I have been fascinated by this film since the first time I watched it a few years ago and I have lost count how many times I have watched it. One of the reasons being that I cannot seem to get over how pitch – perfect the film seems to be. The lighting is beautiful, with wonderful use of shadows and adding atmosphere. The score is haunting and adds to the thrilling nature of the wonderful script, which keeps you guessing and involved with its twists and turns. Anthony Hopkins delivers a spellbinding and creepy performance and Jodie Foster is completely believable with emotion that rings with truth and a fierce intelligence that always comes across when you watch her on screen. This was the first film that actually opened my eyes to the other elements of what make films what they are: the director’s choices, the editor’s, the score, the sound, the cast and more. It was all there for me to dissect and examine, which I loved doing and helped me go on that journey further with the works of Hitchcock and film Noir, and then onto many other types of films, which I still enjoy getting the opportunity to pick apart and see why I find them so great.
I wanted to defend some of the criticism this film received on its initial release. It was called transphobic. This is due to the villain of the film, Buffalo Bill. There is a very deliberate separation between Buffalo Bill and transgendered people. When Clarice asks why there was a moth placed into a victim of Buffalo Bill, Hannibal answers “the significance of the moth is change… Our Billy wants to change, too.” Clarice replies, “There is no correlation between transsexualism and violence. Transsexuals are very passive.” Then Hannibal cuts her off by saying “Clever girl.” After she gives him some more information about the way she grew up he then continues, “Billy is not a real transsexual. But he thinks he is. He tries to be. He’s tried to be a lot of things, I expect…” Billy is someone who hates his own identity, as Hannibal later states, which is not what makes you transgendered. Despite the word transsexual being used (which was the word being used at the time for transgender) there seems to be a clear distinction between Bill and the transgendered community, with the film stating that most “transsexuals are passive”. Also, it is stated that Billy had been rejected several times in his request for a sex change, indicating he is not accepted as transgendered by psychologists who are trained to help transgendered people.
Despite the suggestion by some critics that there is some kind of romantic tension between Hannibal and Clarice, if you pay attention you can see that film dispels these myths directly. Clarice states herself that she is uninterested in any sexual or romantic entanglement and never reacts to the advances by some of the men around her. In fact, in this film alone I have always had a feeling that Clarice is gay. There are many women who would not respond to the men who sexually advance upon Clarice as well, so this is not the sole reason I think this. This could be the influence of having Jodie Foster in the lead who sends off my gaydar whenever I see her. It is also her level of discomfort when men do flirt with her as it seems she is inwardly cringing at this as she always lowers her head and stiffens her posture. Even her attempt to flatter Dr. Frederick Chilton is so bad and false that he doesn’t buy it at all, even though he has been trying to flirt with her up until that point. Her lack of skills in flirting with men indicates that she simply has never wanted to flirt with a man. I also think that she has some chemistry with the character of Ardelia, which I have looked into and it isn’t just me! We see Ardelia running to tell Clarice an update for the case as if her life depended on it. She trusts and admires Clarice that much? Also Ardelia sits down and talks to her with Clarice in her bathrobe and wet hair, so it is obvious she has just come out of the shower, they are obviously very comfortable with each other. They then sit in the laundry room talking about the connectivity of the murders. There are close ups of their face that make them seem even closer together, which I think adds to the chemistry they seem to have in their small scenes together.
The set design and the locations are also fantastic, with Hannibal’s cell locating in a labyrinth, a dark a sinister corridor, filled with other horrifically scary prisoners in cells, with Hannibal at the one at the end behind glass, as he is known for biting or eating those who come to close to him. The film sets to work by trying to get into your brain in a similar fashion as Hannibal does with Clarice. It draws out the tension and suspense throughout the film, leaving moments with high tension and eerily spine – tingling moments and images. It is not aiming to scare, it is aiming to emotionally connect you to the story, invest in the characters and chill you to the bone. It does this so successfully that you will find that once watched, this film is hard to forget.