September 3, 2020  (Web Review)

Duet for Cannibals

Kino Lorber, 105 min., in Swedish w/English subtitles, DVD: $19.95, Blu-ray: $29.95

Reviewer rating: 2.5/4

“Reviewing one’s life is a formidable task,” says Arthur Bauer (Lars Ekborg), an urbane German political exile living in Sweden with his younger Italian wife Francesca (Adriana Asti). But that’s a job that Tomas (Gösta Ekman)—an impressionable young Swedish admirer of Bauer’s—is happy to take on, cataloging the great man’s papers while eyeballing the oddball Francesca. Meanwhile, Tomas’s girlfriend Ingrid (Agneta Ekmanner) is mighty curious about what’s going on over at the Bauers and before long the four principals become involved in an elaborate gamesmanship power scenario that plays a bit like “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”, except that the sexual tensions here indeed lead to sex (in one scene the camera pans across the Bauers’ living room, where a pornographic film is being shown—a sexually explicit shot that made Duet for Cannibals instantly controversial). Written and directed by noted intellectual Susan Sontag, this debut 1969 black-and-white effort is occasionally amusing (a middle-aged woman servant with a perpetual scowl and a limp weirdly brings to mind Frankenstein’s Igor) but is more often discomfiting—presenting adultery not as innocuous Italian lark but rather decidedly kinky and sometimes downright humiliating. Plus, there are death threats and the presence of not one but two Chekhovian guns, which portentously hang over the proceedings. Duet for Cannibals will be an arty slog for some viewers and a fine time-capsule illustration of nouvelle vague-inspired cinema for others (either way, the brief graphic sex scene will likely give some librarians pause). Presented in a sharp 2K digital transfer, extras include audio commentary by artist and writer Wayne Koestenbaum, an archival TV interview with Newsweek film critic Jack Kroll talking to Sontag and filmmaker Agnès Várda, and a booklet with an essay by critic Adam Nayman. A strong optional purchase. (R. Pitman)