The first time we see Issei Sagawa, the subject of Véréna Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor’s new documentary Caniba, he's being fed. For anyone else in his frail, aged state, that'd be pretty innocuous. But Issei Sagawa is a man who has eaten human flesh; watching him eat is nauseating.
In a case so famous it was referenced in a Rolling Stones song, Sagawa killed and ate Renee Hartevelt in Paris in 1981. She was a fellow student; Sagawa had sexual designs on her. When she spurned his advances, he shot her dead with a rifle, before raping her corpse and consuming pieces of her flesh. Sagawa was caught two days later disposing of two large suitcases of uneaten parts in a nearby lake; more pieces of Hartevelt were found in his refrigerator. The evidence was abundant and the verdict swift, but thanks to the French government's unwillingness to pay for his incarceration, Sagawa was - incredibly - deported back to Japan, where he still lives today as a free man. In the decades since the incident, he has found employment as a restaurant reviewer (really), and released books, manga, and porn inspired by his crimes. Currently, he lives with his brother Jun.
That's all backstory, covered in text and voiceover in Caniba's opening minutes. Despite the subject material, Caniba is no true-crime documentary, or even a conventional documentary of any sort - which should come as no surprise to viewers of Paravel and Castaing-Taylor’s earlier film Leviathan. Caniba sits somewhere between an interview film and a slice-of-life documentary, depicting Sagawa and his brother performing everyday tasks while they discuss cannibalism, sex, and themselves. Comprised almost entirely of lengthy, often out-of-focus extreme closeups of its subject, we’re shoved into Sagawa’s mostly expressionless face and forced to watch him consider his slowly-delivered words. It's uncomfortably intimate.
Drawn and weakened by age and chronic illness, with eyelids in a permanent droop, Sagawa expounds upon his sexual and cannibalistic desires - seeing no separation between the two - with frankness that would be refreshing were it not horrifying. He talks about his obsession with white women (starting with Grace Kelly), details the body parts that he craves most, and muses on the philosophy of the crimes he’s committed. Periodically, we hear children playing at a playground or school nearby. At one point, we watch Sagawa fall asleep, as we wonder how his memory lets him.
Many sequences in Caniba are likely to spark mass walkouts. If the clips from Sagawa’s pornographic performances (with censored genitalia, but uncensored gnawing, urine, and semen) don’t do it, the sequence of Sagawa showing off his self-drawn manga might. The manga depicts his crime with fetishistic detail: obsessing over the way skin splits when sliced, the scent of Hartevelt’s menstruation, his sexualisation of her literal flesh. The drawings we see in the film are not realistic - he’s just not a good artist - but they’re extremely specific, focusing on moments Sagawa clearly savours. Almost as disturbing is his brother Jun’s commentary, as he's unable to mask his giggling fascination and enthusiasm for its contents. I do not believe for a second Jun's claim that he was seeing that manga for the first time before Caniba’s camera.
Indeed, Jun’s contribution to the documentary is the lede that, incredibly, this film advertised as being about a real-life cannibal manages to bury. At first merely Sagawa’s carer, a silent witness to the interview, he becomes more vocal as the film goes on, offering animated and verbose explanations for Sagawa’s predilections. His amusement at Sagawa’s crimes plays as a brother’s acceptance taken to an extreme, but it’s nothing compared to what’s to come. After an hour focusing almost exclusively on cannibalism, the film cuts to a sequence of Jun violently wrecking his right arm with barbed wire, knives, candles, fireworks, needles, and his own teeth, while describing his arm as a sexual organ for finding the “perfect pain.” By itself, it’s difficult to watch, shot in unflinching close-ups, but it’s his constant self-comparisons to his brother’s cannibalism that disturb the most. Astonishingly, Jun seems bitter that he’s the less fucked-up of the two. Their relationship, defined by jealousy and bickering as much as it is by fraternal caring, is the most fascinating element of a film that was bizarre to start with.
Caniba offers no explanation for Sagawa’s crimes; no talking heads blaming his actions on a mental imbalance or a poor upbringing. What scant archive footage there is - mostly of the Sagawa brothers as small children - does little to illuminate the roots of their troubling personality traits. Both brothers speak fondly and frequently of Disney cartoons, animals (Sagawa owns multiple stuffed animals), Miyazaki films, and life’s lighter pleasures. They turn on a dime from those fantasies to cannibalistic ones, as if they’re no different to one another. Maybe to them they aren’t.
Caniba’s final sequence sees Jun supplanted as caregiver by a younger woman in a "sexy maid" costume. She feeds Sagawa, helps him move around, tells him stories, and takes him for a wheelchair-assisted stroll, all the while maintaining a cutesy disposition. Repeatedly, Sagawa refers to her as “his miracle,” marveling that a woman so attractive would look after him (even though it's hinted she's paid to do so). The film opens with the Sagawa brothers talking wistfully about the chance of, in the age of the Internet, finding a woman who wants to be eaten; in that light, this sequence is especially unsettling.
In terms of literal visual content, Caniba isn't that extreme. But it’s so real, so intimate with its repulsive subjects, that it’s an especially difficult watch. You’ll be watching Sagawa nibble on chocolate, and it just hits you again: this is a man who murdered a woman, then raped and ate her corpse. It’s real, it happened, and the living proof is right there. You won’t soon forget Caniba - no matter how much you might like to.
Caniba screens at the Montreal International Documentary Festival on November 10th and 18th.