PRINT March 1991


Jonathan Demme’s Silence of the Lambs

IN A FILM OF heart-stopping terror, perhaps the creepiest shot in Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs is a close-up of a handshake. It is late in the film. Tough little bird Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) has just officially graduated from fledgling trainee to full-fledged F.B.I. investigator. She is flushed from the triumph of surviving an attack from and shooting a serial killer of young women. She is also the survivor of another mass murderer’s psychological assault: the brilliant asylum-inmate Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins), whose intuitions and brief acquaintance with her killer she has used to get her man. Clarice’s other mentor has been severe Jack Crawford (Scott Glenn), head of the Behavioral Science Unit of the F.B.I. So, in this scene, she and a proud-papa Crawford shake hands. Her diminutive paw in his larger one is black suited and white cuffed—exactly like his. Identically dressed, the hands are uncanny in their mimicry, which only renders their different sizes pathetically evident. The murderer Clarice hunted, Jame Gumb (Ted Levine), a wanna-be transsexual, was sewing himself a woman’s suit out of his victim’s skins. Now motherless Clarice, fully abandoned at ten when her adored sheriff father died, has finally, metaphorically, put on her father’s suit.

What further raises hairs on cinéaste gooseflesh is the feeling that what Clarice has so desperately trained herself to defend against (a world of oversized dangerous men) is exactly what she has desperately trained to join (in the guise of the F.B.I.). With nightmare logic, the more expert she becomes, the more vulnerable and in danger she seems—a paradox marked by the coincidence of this handshake with a phone call from Lecter, promising Clarice a lifetime of terrorizing complicity.

The Silence of the Lambs is as tense a thriller as Hollywood makes, but it is also, like so many of the films of Alfred Hitchcock, a thoughtful, grim, perverse meditation on sex and social identity. In images that work poetically and metaphorically as much as to tell a story, Demme, working from a novel by Thomas Harris, describes a society crying out for a transformation of its basic structures as they are ordered by gender, but harrowed by the process of change. Thoroughly modern Clarice is far from Samuel Richardson’s helpless Clarissa, but she is symbolically raped by Lecter (lecher and lecturer), who forces her to recollection of a childhood trauma involving slaughtered farm lambs. And she is often encircled by threatening males: at least twice the camera captures her entrapment by spinning 360 degrees from her point of view. Even friendly fellow agents dwarf her in an elevator. Head shots of powerful men—good guys and bad—are cut off at the top. They are too big, their symmetry with each other too fearful, to be framed. And Clarice has been rhymed with Gumb’s victims since the opening sequence, where ominous music suggests she is running scared, though she is actually just training on the F. B.I:s outdoor obstacle course. Still, the course foreshadows the unsettling labyrinthine corridors she will subsequently thread. And the film’s very first shot shows her climbing, as part of this workout, up a rope in a steep hollow, visually linking her to a kidnaped girl Gumb keeps in a pit in his basement, and whom Clarice spends much of the movie desperately trying to free.

In a narrative whose central metaphor is metamorphosis—Gumb raises moths and butterflies, and sticks a moth chrysalis under the soft palate of one of his casualties—imprisonment, and the inability to change, are emphasized. Literal images of prison enter the film through the scenes of Lecter’s high-security cell. The frustrated Gumb has repeatedly been denied a sex-change operation. And if Clarice has sympathies across sexual and legal boundaries, identifying with both victim and enforcer, she also, as Lecter points out, wears her unshakable origins on her feet: she has a good bag but cheap shoes—utilitarian, masculine shoes, like her father’s.

The good bag is only an accoutrement. As Gumb can only wear his borrowed skins, Clarice merely carries her leather bag. But Lecter, whose nickname is Hannibal the Cannibal, is imprisoned for eating his victims. Only he seems capable of fully transforming himself. Partly this is because he accepts that the self is acces-sories. (Admonished to “look into yourself,” Clarice finds a clue at “Your Self Storage Garage,” a warehouse filled with dissociated emblematic objects, Lecter’s props.) Partly it is because, while Gumb wants to be only a woman and Clarice to some extent wishes and for safety’s sake is forced to be only a man, Lecter acknowledges a plurality of selves, including one that is female: the “self” -storage unit is registered to “Esther Mofet,” an anagram for “the rest of me.” Ultimate proof of Lecter’s transformability comes when he escapes from his larval cage, leaving behind the crucified, bunting-draped corpse of a guard, sadistically butterflied. On one side in the movie the many visual suggestions of outspread wings, and Hannibal’s pressure, whisper to Clarice, “Spread your wings, little Starling, and fly.” On the other side is a universe of Jame Gumbs, who carves two diamond patterns (dressmaker’s darts, a “taking-in” device) on a dead woman’s back, fatally clipping her wings.

In a sense, Clarice’s handshake with The death’s-head moth, as shown in posters for The Silence of the Lambs. Photo: © 1991 Orion Pictures Corporation. Crawford seals a pact with the devil, a bargain in which she gets Gumb and eternal “protection” from ever-shadowing Lecter. Hannibal is Mephistopheles; Clarice, Faust. “You’re so ambitious, aren’t you?” he comments. That ambition—to be part of a power structure objectified in glass boxes and grids—is peculiarly American. No wonder that when she looks into her self—the storage garage—one item she finds is a flag-draped coffin. Clarice’s self is partly America’s history—history being storage, archival—and that history belongs also and primarily to Lecter. Those are his things. Pointedly, he is briefly imprisoned in a war museum. Something is so wrong with America that even admirable women are tainted by association with it. Senator Ruth Martin, mother of the kidnaped girl, is warmly maternal and worldly competent but still perfumed with the musk of too much power. Lecter is brought before her bound and masked in iron. His parting shot at her—“Love your suit”—implicates her in the general butchery of filched identities.

With deadly Hannibal’s polymorphousness contrasted to touching Clarice’s forced rigidity, her desire to belong to the world of men, the story shows deep American ambivalence about the transgression of boundaries. These boundaries are already blurred by the film’s beginning, where you cannot immediately tell whether Clarke is a boy or a girl, and where she wears a blue shirt among red- (deep pink-) shirted men. Roles are reversed—Clarice the child is a Christ figure, trying to rescue a lamb—and reversed again. No sacrificial lamb herself, the adult woman aligns with a male-run enforcement agency, raising suspicions of a Judas goat unintentionally leading other lambs to slaughter through the maze of the film’s pens or corridors.

Oddly left untouched by all these paranoid crossovers is Clarice’s only confidante, Ardelia Mapp (Kasi Lemmons), the young black F.B.I. trainee. She remains unaccounted for, a loose end. Her color emphasizes how isolated and anomalous she and Clarice are among the agents, while her presence serves to mitigate Clarice’s aloneness. The most immediate feeling is that the girl is a token—in many ways, including E. M. Forster’s sense of the “flat” character needed to round out another figure. But perhaps what’s suggested is that Ardelia has nothing to do in the film because this is not her nightmare, this specialty of Crawford’s, and now of Clarice’s—the white-male serial killers of rural America.

But then there is the curious fact that Lecter, escaped from the asylum, ends up among the black population of the Bahamas. Lecter is the slaughtering American hidden away in prison and garage (institution and home); his escape there implies the unleashing of a colonizing America’s destructiveness. A libidinal force “at home” on the island, he reinforces Demme’s consistent, perhaps in itself colonizing use of black culture as a metaphor for the freely creative primeval, a place where Lecter’s “magic” will not be encased by behavioral science. Lecter is instinctive, total freedom, and total freedom must feed on someone else’s unfreedom. Clarice has been sold her private hell. With the connection of the victimizing Lecter to the black Bahamians, the film may unconsciously recognize that Ardelia is not so safe on the margins of even this particular American pathology, that one American dream not denied people of color is the American nightmare. They are not the safe marginality to which persecuted whites escape in other, comic Demme productions.

The story powerfully argues that destruction and brutality are inextricably woven into the cloth of everyday existence. We repress this at our own individual peril, we liberate it at everyone else’s. So where do we put Hannibal the Cannibal?

Jeanne Silverthorne is an artist and writer who lives in New York.