In which I can help you tell the version of events you want to be told…if you ask me.
“Abel: But I shouldn’t spoil the fairy tale, should I? You and your little gingerbread house.
Hannibal: Let it be a fairy tale then. Once upon a time…”
…and so the fairy tale begins. As a follow-up to the Lecter House Massacre that closes out Hannibal’s second season, “Antipasto” offers little in the way of resolution, aside from the continuing presence of Laurence Fishburne and Caroline Dhavernas in the opening credits (more on their fates is coming next week.) But as a full-fledged leap into the dream world that a Hannibal Lecter unleashed can create for himself, it’s a stunning experience, a heady, intoxicating stylistic brew, and as much of a celebration of aesthetic pleasure as “Mizumono” was a celebration of chaos and carnage.
Discussing the show in a recent interview with Variety, Bryan Fuller noted that “it’s evolved from a crime procedural into an opera, just because we had done so much with the crime procedural world and it was always an element that I never fully embraced — I was always looking for ways to subvert it or enhance it with the death tableaus.” Just as Hannibal revealed his true self to Jack, Alana, and Will at the conclusion of Season 2, so too did the show itself finally reveal itself for what it was: an extension of Hannibal himself, the seductive fugue state of a man in love with darkness. “Antipasto”, then, has no illusions about absorbing the form of Hannibal the European aesthete (much as Ridley Scott’s Hannibal did as well.)
And what sensual pleasures there are to behold in this brave new cannibal world. James Hawkinson has been rightly praised for the lush beauty of his cinematography throughout the first two seasons; his accomplishment is even more impressive considering the compact spaces and settings in which he had to compose his images. But Hannibal’s flight to Paris, and then Italy, opens up the visual palette to encompass a realm of Renaissance architecture and old world artistry. So much of the appeal (and conflict) of Hannibal as a character has always lied in the dichotomy between his classical artistic predilections and the more nouveau, utilitarian American environment in which he’s resided. It’s a dichotomy that’s thrown into even starker contrast in his dealings with the sterile world of the FBI, with its dull modern architecture and uniformity of fashion and philosophy. Characters often view him as an exotic bird in a concrete jungle, and the audience takes great pleasure in his ability to inject a primal and diffuse sensibility into an environment of such rigid codes. It’s why Hawkinson’s cinematography has been so enthralling, his willingness to bend and distort our view of reality tapping into the universal thrill instinct that’s embedded deep in our DNA.
In “Antipasto”, he takes these visual flights of fancy to even more impressionistic lengths. The expository flashbacks that are scattered throughout are all framed in the classic 2.35:1 aspect ratio, which in standard cinematic language usually denotes an expansion of the visual field. But when applied to the standard 1.78:1 televisual frame, it condenses and tightens the visual field (which, in a bit of meta-commentary, reflects the restrictive nature of both the FBI’s world and the show’s procedural roots), while still offering a distinctive sense of spatial framing. Thus, when the action returns to the present, our field of vision is expanded up and out into a full panoramic appreciation of the decadent fairy tale that Hannibal has created for himself, and that Bryan Fuller and company have created for the audience. It’s a world in which Bedelia descends into the inky darkness of her bathtub, floating and drowning in her own doubt (which is also a visual callback to the image of Alana doing much the same in “Mizumono”, and of Will’s vision of Cassie Boyle floating in the dark from way back in “Apertif”.) In which the first images that we see are of a key inserted into a lock and a hypnotic flourishing of flames, the mechanics of the internal combustion process transformed into an alluring montage.
And in which the telling flashback to a dying Abel Gideon chastising Hannibal about the hermetically sealed environment he’s constructed for himself (the key quote from which opens this essay) cuts directly from Hannibal saying “Once upon a time” to a startling first person POV shot of two hands flinging open a crimson velvet curtain to reveal the golden hues of the Italian ballroom. It’s Hannibal’s very own Wizard of Oz moment, the restrictions of the black and white world exploded in a visual orgy of color. As acclaimed cultural scholar (and author of the forthcoming book The Problem with Alana Bloom) Lillian Tyack noted to me from her Swiss chalet “In this context, Hannibal is obviously the Wizard surrogate, the curtains motif echoing that character’s revelation in the film, and running parallel to Hannibal’s removal of his person suit revealing his own true, manipulative self.” There are other signifiers of Hannibal’s reshaping of the world into the fairy tale version that he desires. Season 2’s obsession with close ups of eyes is enhances with the close up of Hannibal in his motorcycle helmet, the visor forming a giant, all-seeing, reflective eye. While studying at the conservatory, he’s surrounded by two row of display cases filled with medieval torture instruments, the layout echoing the pseudo-medieval row of life-size cages in Frederick Chilton’s Baltimore State Psychiatric Hospital.
At the center of this fairy tale world is Hannibal’s queen, Bedelia DuMaurier. For a year, speculation has run rampant as to why she joined her former patient on that plane to Paris. What “Antipasto” reveals is as complex as one would expect from the series. For her role in this fantasy world is ultimately both that of queen and princess trapped in the castle. Gillian Anderson has always been fascinating as the sphinx-like psychiatrist, but she really gives a tour de force performance in this episode. For long stretches, the mannered veneer to which we’ve grown accustomed threatens to break apart; she looks as if she’s about to be ill, the seeming guilt of her situation an overwhelming weight. These passages feel much like the rape/trauma theory I espoused in my essay for “Releves”, especially in the context of the flashback to her murder of her former patient (and Hannibal’s emotional blackmail/vampiric request that follows it, which also forms the epigram for this essay.) When Anderson breaks down in tears after the murder, it’s a powerful moment, made even more effective by her almost total flattening of affect in the previous two seasons building up to it.
But it’s not that simple. It’s never been that simple. For even as she continues to bluntly assess his twisted psychology in their domestic life (“You no longer have ethical concerns, only aesthetics”), there’s a definite allure that Hannibal holds for her. He brings it into focus during his murder of Anthony Dimmond, when he asks her “Are you going to observe or participate?” and if she anticipated what would happen between him and this man who threatens the secrecy of his identity. Her answer (“I was curious”) is, of course, Hannibal’s classic motivation for the destruction that he wreaks on others, and when she admits that this is what she thought would happen, he correctly notes “That’s participation.” Bedelia may want to believe that in her own fairy tale, she’s the trapped princess. But deep inside, she knows that she’s been a more willing queen than she wants to admit. It’s Eros and Thanatos run rampant once again, with Hannibal as the sexiest death avatar in the world, and Bedelia drawn to the erotic frisson of that danger. When she sees the medieval drawing of Lucifer superimposed over his face during his lecture on Dante, she wants to flee. But in the end, it’s devil she knows that she sticks with.
The presence of Abel Gideon in the black and white flashbacks serves as a nice reminder of Eddie Izzard’s charm in that role. It also reminds Hannibal and the viewer of the tenuous state of any fairy tale existence. As Gideon notes at episode’s end “I’m just curious to know how you’ll feel when this all happens to you.” Reality will beckon at the door soon enough. But for now, it’s once again Hannibal’s world. And we’re just living in it.
Some high class leftovers to have:
*Once again, Brian Reitzell’s sound design is a standout feature, an integral part of the show’s genetics. The European setting allows him to indulge a more playful tone, while also sticking with the more avant-garde aspects of his main philosophy. Hence, the opening motorcycle ride is scored to a jazzy sax while wavering nightmare strings lurk in the back of the soundscape. And Dimmon’s murder climaxes with a free jazz sax squack overlaid on fairy tale-esque audio twinklings.
*Bedelia’s dinner comment to Dimmond (that her husband prefers her to taste a certain way) is a delightfully bawdy bit of business amidst the submerged unease. And the look on Hannibal’s face when their guest proposes that the proceedings turn into a three-way? Priceless.
*“I still believe I am in conscious control of my actions. Given your history, that’s a good day.” (Bedelia, to Hannibal)
*“I’m trying to avoid things with a central nervous system” (Bedelia, describing her culinary habits to Dimmond at dinner.)
*In the flashbacks to Hannibal showering at Bedelia’s house and her post-murder cleanup, the dripping water in each turns to blood as it washes off of them, a visual callback to the blood rain motif that “Mizumono” featured.