Saturday 25 November 2017

25 years of Silence for Jodie Foster

The week's hottest movie ticket was Jodie Foster in London

Anthony Hopkins and Jodie Foster share a creepily intimate moment in 'Silence of the Lambs'
Anthony Hopkins and Jodie Foster share a creepily intimate moment in 'Silence of the Lambs'
Donal Lynch

Donal Lynch

For discerning culture vultures, the hottest ticket in London last Friday night was undoubtedly Jodie Foster's appearance at the screening in the BFI's South Bank cinema of the horror classic, Silence of the Lambs. It has been a quarter of a century since the film came out, sweeping all the major Oscar categories for the first time for any film since Ben-Hur, and even today it still grips audiences like a jolt of scalp-prickling terror. The film's director, Jonathan Demme, died earlier this year and it was partly in tribute to him that Foster agreed to attempt to articulate the film's complicated legacy.

It seems unlikely in some ways that Silence of the Lambs would be made today. In these transgender friendlier times, the symbolism of a story about a serial killer who flays and scalps his female victims in order to wear their skin would have appalled many. Armistead Maupin fictionalised the uproar that met Silence on its release in his novel Maybe The Moon and Demme belatedly insisted that a line be inserted into the film to the effect that transgender people are not violent.

This overall disquiet about the allegedly transphobic tone of the film was not helped by the fact that one of its stars, Foster, was then deep in the closet (she has periodically stuck a toe or two out of it in the years since). Despite all of this, the film went on to become a classic, aided by the understated menace of Demme's screenplay, the sweeping sadness of its theme tune, Goodbye Horses, and two quite astonishing performances in the lead roles.

If we forgave Foster her reticence in coming out, it might have been because we recognised that, like Clarice Starling, she was a woman operating in an obviously male and obviously sexist system.

By the time she took on the role in Silence, she had already won an Oscar for her performance as a rape victim in The Accused, and the incident with John Hinckley - who shot Ronald Reagan in an attempt to impress Foster - gave her the public aura of a woman hunted. All of this is channelled fabulously into the performance.

We see the bird-eyed Starling for the first time as an FBI underling, summoned from the training course by her arrogant boss. There has been a series of brutal, gruesome killings of young women and it's thought that the perpetrator, nick-named Buffalo Bill for his habit of skinning them, may once have been a patient of a psychiatrist who is serving time in a maximum security prison: Hannibal Lecter. Clarice has to rebuff the sexual advances of the prison boss and is warned again and again about Lecter. She is advised to use the sliding food carrier in the cell to pass files to Lecter. It seems a nurse leaned too close to the doctor nearly a decade before. "His pulse never got over 85," she is told, "not even when he ate her tongue."

All of this sets the scene for the most terrifying movie entrance of the 1990s: Hannibal Lecter (played by Anthony Hopkins) in his prison lair. The first time she sees him he is perfectly still, glacial and menacing, a vision of professorial evil.

Foster revealed on The Graham Norton Show last year that she and Hopkins never socialised offset during the making of the film and this might be what gives their exchanges - shot in extreme close up - such intensity. Lecter assesses Starling as being "not more than one generation from white trash". We never know if she can trust him or not.

To save Buffalo Bill's latest victim and to try to elicit information from Lecter, Clarice parcels out memories from her childhood to the curious doctor. And it is one of these scenes - a memory of the sound of animals being slaughtered on her grandfather's farm - that gives the movie its name. She exposes the terrified child inside herself to his evil intelligence and is rewarded with insight into an even more disturbed mind.

At one point, as he attempts to escape, Clarice and Lecter touch briefly. The moment is electric and is perhaps the climax of the movie, although of course she feels the presence of Lecter again toward the film's conclusion, when he phones her to enigmatically tell her (in the movie's most iconic line) that he is "taking an old friend for dinner".

It is perhaps unfair to ask an artist to explain the appeal of their art. Perhaps the real reason Silence and its stars out-ran the controversies was because it is that most unusual of creatures, a horror film that eschews visceral brutality; we rarely see anything gory - and one that came with a powerful female lead. Clarice, like Jodie, is a warrior who has stood the test of time.

As the film critic Peter Travers wrote 25 years ago, Silence is one for the ages because, "For all the unbridled savagery on display, what is shrewd, significant and finally hopeful... is the way it proves that a movie can be mercilessly scary and mercifully humane at the same time."

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