Susan Sontag occupied a role in 1960s culture that’s pretty much non-existent today: that of a public intellectual, as well-known for her appearances in the popular media as for her more philosophical output. She’s probably best remembered today for her many books and essays, which deliver insights on the contemporary world in gemlike prose, including Notes on ‘Camp,’ Against Interpretation, Styles of Radical Will, Illness as Metaphor, and Regarding the Pain of Others. She was also a political activist, novelist, playwright, and screenwriter and film director, making her debut in the latter roles with the 1969 Duet for Cannibals.
Sontag was a great admirer of Ingmar Bergman, and his influence is obvious in Duet for Cannibals, which was made in Sweden at the invitation of a Swedish studio. It’s very much in the arthouse tradition of the 1960s, and not just because of the subtitles and black-and-white cinematography—it’s also deliberately confusing, sometimes off-putting, in a way that some people can’t stand and others simply eat up. if you like straightforward stories, this is not your film, but if you like complications and cleverness and highly stylized dissections of power games, it may be just what you’re looking for.
As the film opens, Tomas (Gösta Eckman) is going to an interview for a position as a personal assistant to a famous leftist, Bauer (Lars Ekborg), who’s at least a legend in his own mind (Brecht once gave him a cigarette lighter!). Clearly, all is not well in the Bauer household—the great man eats like a pig, leaves the table to vomit, then returns as if nothing happened, while his wife Francesca (Adriana Asti) introduces herself by throwing a book through a window in her husband’s study. Your first instinct might be to run, but seldom does drama come from people acting on their common sense.
Of course Tomas takes the job, and before you know it, Bauer insists that he move into this mad household. Tomas once again agrees, despite the fact that he lives with a perfectly lovely (and apparently normal) young lady named Ingrid (Agneta Ekmanner). Then Ingrid moves in as well, creating a perfect dramatic stew of unstable personalities at close quarters, who bounce from one conflict to another as if the outside world did not exist.
The warring couples of Duet for Cannibals echo those of Edward Albee’s play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? which got its own black-and-white film treatment in 1966 courtesy of Mike Nichols. Duet for Cannibals is not nearly in that class (either the play or the film), but it’s interesting enough on its own terms, being part homage to the European art films that were so treasured by the bright young Americans of the 1960s, and part parody of those same films (and it’s not always clear which is which). It’s exactly the kind of film Jenny, Cary Milligan’s character in An Education, would have been attracted to, because it is so foreign and European and (apparently) sophisticated, and thus so exactly not like the life of a schoolgirl in a London suburb. So, If your inner adolescent includes a strain of cool-kid precocious Bohemianism, Duet for Cannibals may be just the thing to give you a break from your own four walls during this long pandemic lockdown. | Sarah Boslaugh
Duet for Cannibals is distributed on DVD, Blu-ray, and digitally by Kino-Lorber. I reviewed it from a screening link, but according to the Kino Lorber web site, the disc includes an audio commentary by Wayne Koestenbaum (exactly the guy whose take I would love to hear on this film) a booklet essay by Adam Nayman, and a 1969 interview with Agnès Varda and Susan Sontag.