The Silence of the Lambs archive review: Jodie Foster in America’s underworld of desire

Foster’s fledgling CIA agent braves a gauntlet of malevolent male gazes in Jonathan Demme’s macabre diagnosis of a nation’s psycho-sexual decadence.

Lizzie Francke

from our June 1991 issue

Anthony Hopkins and Jodie Foster in Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs (1990)

Anthony Hopkins and Jodie Foster in Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs (1990)

“Hurt/Agony/Pain/Love it or die”: the sign on the FBI Academy assault course is the cue for Jonathan Demme’s omen for the millennium. He and scriptwriter Ted Tally have neatly filleted Thomas Harris’s virtuoso novel to produce a sombre masterpiece, the dark flipside of the brash Married to the Mob, in which an FBI agent falls in love with the woman he is surveying.

From the opening shots, as a dull, grey mist dusts the trees at dawn, to the final scene showing Hannibal Lecter ambling after fresh prey at dusk, the film creates a world drained of light, counterpointed by a sinister and unsettling score. The heavy, unnatural crimson of Lecter’s subterranean prison, or the green of Buffalo Bill’s goggles casting their strange hue over his chamber of horrors, recall the Gothic style of Roger Corman’s Poe cycle. And what could be more appropriate to this story of teacher-protege relationships than a cameo appearance by Demme’s own mentor, the director of the apocalyptic The Man with the X-Ray Eyes, here playing the Head of the FBI?

Demme has a knack for characterisation that serves this anatomy of a murderer well. Serial killers Buffalo Bill, who skins his victims, and Hannibal ‘the Cannibal’ Lecter, who devours his, make a gruesome double act, but the latter gets the best lines.

The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

The phenomenal Lecter, played with steely-eyed relish by Anthony Hopkins, is renaissance man turned mediaeval gargoyle. He draws the Duomo at Florence from memory, can distinguish which version of the Goldberg Variations he prefers, is expert in the art of grisly cuisine: at Hannibal’s feast, the old roué is likely to serve up human liver with fafa beans and chianti. A reincarnation of Dracula, he personifies a self-devouring high culture turning in on its own impeccable order. More chillingly, as a high priest of the twentieth-century religion, psychoanalysis, he is diabolical indeed.

But a woman’s psyche takes centre stage. Rookie FBI agent Clarice Starling, investigating the violation and death of a series of young women like herself, must confront her own vulnerability and childhood fears. Demme avoids exploiting potentially sensational material, focusing on Starling’s emotional and psychological journey through a shocking and traumatic landscape. A post-mortem sequence, for example, in which she has to examine in detail the bloated and mutilated corpse of one of Buffalo Bill’s victims, scrutinises her expression, registering the difficulty with which she controls her feelings. And on her visit to the faded bedroom of another victim, Frederica, looking for the deceased girl’s small secrets, she finds hidden in a child’s music box polaroids of her gauchely posing in her underwear, little knowing that she is being sized up for a more terrifying need. The scene is poignant, mourning the loss of an innocent young woman, but also painful, reminding Starling of her own uneasy status as a coveted object.

The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

Foster is remarkable in the role of the fledgling agent: a backwoods girl from West Virginia, disadvantaged by virtue of her class and sex, striving for equality in the FBI male hierarchy. Her strength and determination are evident from the very beginning as she bombs along the assault course, pushing herself to the limits. As the protegee of dour agent Crawford, she becomes an exceptional case, the centre of a curious attention. The film highlights the problems attendant on her temporary promotion: in a lift, she appears conspicuously small next to her burly male colleagues, getting second looks from passers-by; accompanying Crawford to the postmortem, she stands her ground against a posse of deputies who cast a resentful eye over her. But above all, she is the object of Lecter’s laser-like stare, which may leave her flesh unsullied, but seeks to gouge out her soul.

This invasion of her innermost thoughts and the very space she inhabits is chillingly resonant in Lecter brushing her fingers from behind the bars of his cage, in Buffalo Bill reaching out to possess her in the dark, or even in Crawford’s farewell handshake. To collect her evidence, Starling puts her very self at risk, venturing into America’s secret darkness, from Lecter’s hellish dungeon, where all the sins of repression threaten to erupt, to Buffalo Bill’s underground cavern, where a neo-fascist poster exhorts “America Open Your Eyes”. Here, most disturbingly, Demme invites the audience to crawl under the killer’s skin, illuminating Starling with the festering green spotlight of Buffalo Bill’s envious gaze.

The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

As in Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom, the cinema audience is implicated with a deadly look (blatantly that of a controlling, repressive and vigilant order) which pins down its victim. This shift of identification away from feisty heroine to obsessive killer pushes the spectator to the edge of his/her own abyss. “Believe me, you don’t want Hannibal Lecter inside your head”, Starling is warned. But Lecter is a consummate professional, teasing home truths out of her and easing himself into her mind in a sado-masochistic duel. “People will say we’re in love” he quips, and perhaps he is. “The world is a more interesting place with you in it”, he confesses in a swan-song to his Starling from his Haitian hideaway.

Meanwhile, Buffalo Bill, his own genitals neatly tucked away, wants to occupy and penetrate women’s bodies. He sews, Dr Frankenstein-style, a sheath made out of their skins to dress up in, as if to stamp out female sexuality completely in an anarchic quest for identity. Are these the laws of desire in a decaying culture built on the husks of atrophied ideals, where longing is a destructive touch and relationships are made out of perverse torment? It’s a grim message: Hurt, agony, pain; love it or die.


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