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The Line Between Art and Carnage in Hannibal

The human cost of violence

“You no longer have ethical concerns, Hannibal,” says the famous cannibal’s abducted psychiatrist Bedelia du Maurier, “Only aesthetical ones.” She might as well be talking about the show. Bryan Fuller’s adaptation and expansion of author Thomas Harris’s novels Red Dragon and Hannibal is one of the most sensuously beautiful shows of the last decade. Its camera is intimately soft and gentle, its lighting buttery, its shadows deep. Even the bodies of its actors fit its overall aesthetic, their facial tics and unique silhouettes treated almost like living statuary, the flow of muscle under skin observed so meticulously that bodies in motion take on the characteristics of waterfalls or landslides.

Hannibal blurs the distinction between art and violence in a way that both implicates its audience as voyeurs to murder and explores our emotional connection to death. The dead bodies it presents are substituted for the action scenes they imply, the act of murder itself more often than not passed over in favor of static representations of the emotions that motivated it. In the show’s third season Hannibal turns a victim’s corpse inside out and sculpts it into the likeness of a gigantic human heart to symbolize the injury his protégé-slash-nemesis Will Graham did him in exposing him to the authorities. His emotion takes on physical form, communicated through human flesh.

In that transmutation is a potent metaphor for both the price we pay for beauty and the profound disrespect with which we treat the work and sacrifice that go into creating it. Where does expression end and the violence which is its medium begin? If a laborer dies building a cathedral, is his death part of its beauty? Hannibal doesn’t so much render moral judgment on the stickiness of that question as it does pull it wide open and play around in its innards, forcing its viewers to sit with and inspect the fascination its grotesque spectacles inspire.

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This Is My Design

Manifestly and explicitly emotional, the images Hannibal offers up at the scenes of the murders around which it revolves are almost confessional in nature. From the religious killings of disturbed truck driver Elliot “The Angel Maker” Buddish, who transforms his victims into guardian spirits to watch over his uneasy sleep to James “The Muralist” Gray and his mosaic of glazed human bodies, the show positions its arthouse subspecies of violence as a kind of frustrated empathy, a series of attempts by damaged but brilliant minds to make sense out of the mess of human connection.

The bodies of the dead are always centrally framed, always visible at some point without clutter in the shot or living points of reference. They do not themselves threaten danger, but they act as omens of its imminent arrival, and as mile markers on the road to a deeper and more pervasive insanity. Film and television critic Sean T. Collins terms this method of presenting horror iconography “the Monolithic Horror Image”, a technique by which a silent figure or icon is positioned to introduce or build a sense of dread into a horror narrative. Hannibal makes these images its focus, centering its characters’ emotional and intellectual lives around them.

The show also personalizes its monolithic horror images, using each one to express the emotional and/or artistic sensibilities of its creator. Much of the three-season series is driven by the artistic tastes and temperament of Hannibal Lecter himself, as portrayed by Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen. Hannibal’s discerning palate and the contempt with which he views his fellow human beings are reflected in displays of violence which position his victims as installation art: a corpse cut into cross sections and displayed between panes of glass, bodies pierced by skewers, knives, and medical implements in a grotesque parody of the Medieval medical diagram known as the Wound Man.

The Act of Dying

Hannibal’s disdain for others informs the character and meaning of his art, whether it’s the corpse sculptures he creates or the exquisite dishes he prepares with human flesh. The purpose of his work is to break human beings down into sensual experiences, to reduce — or elevate, depending on your point of view — them to the specific highbrow strain of art the creation and appreciation of which is one of his social class’s leisure activities. He delights in tricking others into acts of cannibalism, the personal thrill of knowing that a taboo activity binds him to another person serving perhaps as a substitute for genuine emotional connection.

Where other shows about murder and abnormal psychology trade in binaries of good and evil, Hannibal finds deeper meaning in musing without resolution on extremes of violence and emotion. Maybe violence is a form of art, but when the show trades in less stylized brutality — Hannibal kicking a dead body out of a car, Miriam Lass putting a bullet through psychiatrist Frederick Chilton’s head — it peers through the filigree of its own baroque artifice to help preserve the understanding that no matter its aesthetic value, all violence has a human cost.

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