A Ho-hum Hannibal

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Keith Hamshere / The Weinstein Company

Gaspard Ulliel stars as Hannibal Lecter in "Hannibal Rising."

No...energy...Won't...be able...to write...my usual...3,000 words...Can't...crack...jokes...Must...blame...Hannibal Rising.

This movie drained me. But not in the way a vampire drains blood from its victim. That act has a predatory intimacy. The contact of fangs on neck is erotic - a deep, dirty first kiss, and the prelude to fatal sexual enslavement. Hannibal Rising isn't nearly that much fun. It doesn't, in the manner of its hero, take a bite out of you. The movie is more like a blood drive where you go to donate your pint and nobody takes the needle out and you're strapped to the gurney unable to do anything but watch your life drip away. It's that kind of movie: enervating, draining, sucking. Though the movie has some laughable lines, it's so wan you will not be roused to so much as a snicker.

The movie, directed by Peter Webber (Girl With a Pearl Earring) and written by Thomas Harris, author of the novel, is a devolution and devaluation of Hannibal Lecter, the genius-madman-gourmand Harris created in Red Dragon (1981, filmed as Manhunter in 1986 and remade as Red Dragon in 2002) and developed in The Silence of the Lambs (1988, filmed in 1991) and Hannibal (1999, filmed 2001).

As readers and viewers of the third novel (Hannibal) know, Lecter grew up a pampered aristocrat in Lithuania, fond of his parents, immensely devoted to his younger sister Mischa. In the last months of World War II, his parents were killed in a Nazi air strike and he and Mischa were held for possible ransom by looters. Near starvation and desperate for food, the looters killed, cooked and devoured the girl. The suggestion is that Lecter's life became a twisted mission to punish all malefactors and dispose of them exactly as his sister was.

In December I wrote about the Hannibal Rising novel for this website. You may consult that review for a fuller history of the character, but here's the essential part:

"Harris wants to shift the audience's take on Lecter from horrified fascination to pity, or sympathy, or empathy. Hannibal Rising is his most explicit defense: not guilty by reason of insanity, with its roots in a childhood trauma. [That's plausible,] but a lot less interesting than the grownup spectacle of the super-Mensa, super-crazy Hannibal in the first two books. To explain Hannibal is to remove the reason for his tenacious, voracious hold on readers: his otherness - odious and seductive, and unexplainable - by delving into his past. As the good doctor himself argued (in Silence): 'Nothing happened to me. I happened. You can't reduce me to a set of influences.' Yet that's just what Harris started doing in Hannibal and what consumes the current volume."

Actually, what consumes it, and the movie version, is the 18-year-old Hannibal's tracking down of the dastards who killed and devoured Mischa. (I have to get that West Side Story tune out of my head: "A man like that / He eat your sister.") It's the familiar Freudian tale of a man acting as his own psychoanalyst, plumbing the past to unearth some terrible secret, which he then tries to exorcise - all right, by becoming a serial killer. That's a twist, though hardly a surprise to the people seeing this movie. Nor will Hannibal's method stir the shock of the new in moviegoers. He simply becomes the hero of a standard revenge plot.

Another Freudian aspect: Hannibal, when he comes to Paris from Lithuania, stays with his uncle's widow, the ravishing Lady Murasaki (Gong Li). It seems that the sexuality she awakens in him also helps trigger his homicidal impulses. He commits a murder to satisfy her besmirched honor; he sees his crime as an act of chivalric protectiveness that will endear him to lovely Lady M., and might prove to her that he's not a troubled child but a heroic man. Now we're tiptoeing toward Oedipus Rex: Will Hannibal kill a man in order to have sex with his aunt?

All this could conceivably be of interest if the movie had the dash, the wit, the silky threat of the mature Hannibal Lecter. But he's missing, as is Anthony Hopkins. So Webber takes his cue for pacing and tone from the young Hannibal. Alas. As played by Gaspard Ulliel, he's just a gawky, monosyllabic adolescent. You get hints of Hannibal's empathy - his gift at mind- and heart-reading - and the briefest pass at his fascination with culinary matters. But this Hannibal is hardly even a rough sketch for the later Lecter. Indeed, he's virtually unrecognizable.

I mean, where's the charm? There's no suggestion of the charismatic creepiness of Hopkins' Lecter - that mysterious, chatty, seductive beast so beguiling you'd immediately invite him to dinner. (But don't let him serve you.) The movie lays out the reasons this boy became that man, but without establishing a connection between the two, in looks or personality.

Ulliel, who looks like the young Matthew Modine's thug brother, played Audrey Tautou's beau at the battlefront in A Very Long Engagement. There, he was all innocent desperation; here, he's just moody-broody. For me, Ulliel's performance, especially in the many closeups, was upstaged by my obsession with a cleft near the actor's left eye. I wondered: Is it a healed scar or a high dimple? I never quite decided, but musing on it was a welcome distraction from this sad enterprise.

I'm duty-bound to mention two moments I liked. One is the revelation of a masked ancestor statue that Lady M prays to - the older Lecter will be wearing a similar mask when we first see him in The Silence of the Lambs. The other, just preceding Hannibal's first murder, is the flash of a smile before his face goes blankly ferocious and he proceeds with his butchering. But these are two moments in two hours, and Webber has no other epiphanies to offer. As Girl With the Pearl Earring showed, his tone is contemplative; he has neither the skills nor the taste for the spasms of violence or sexual displays that would zazz up the movie. Poor Hannibal Rising: it lacks even redeeming prurient interest. What's the point of a vegetarian cannibal?

So this prequel is no equal. It's a meat stew missing all the spices and garnishes that make a meal. No Hopkins. No urgency. No sense. And, like me, no...energy.