French writer Georges Bataille said that "men are swayed by two simultaneous emotions: they are driven away by terror and drawn by an awed fascination. Taboo and transgression reflect these two contradictory urges. The taboo would forbid the transgression but the fascination compels it." That about sums it up for most people who have sought out The Human Centipede (First Sequence) -- and really, horror cinema in general. It's just that Tom Six's film promises a certain level of depravity exceeding the tolerance of many (and to the delight of some). The end result, however, has far less gruesomeness and far more depth than the concept of connecting three people ass-to-mouth implies.
In the film, two American girls (Ashley C. Williams & Ashlynn Yennie) become stranded during their travels in Germany and come across the home of Dr. Heiter (Dieter Laser), a leader in the field of conjoined twin surgery, while seeking help. He drugs and imprisons the girls, along with a Japanese man (Akihiro Kitamura), in his basement infirmary. With his test subjects selected, he sets out to create his masterpiece -- a human centipede -- by severing the tendons of their kneecaps, removing some of their teeth and surgically attaching the trio entrance to exit. [spoilers after the jump]
For obvious reasons, many are comparing the film to the work of body horror auteur David Cronenberg, but there are more parallels to Cronenberg's psychological ideology than the physiological mutations the visceral visionary is normally recognized for. Roughly the first forty minutes shows almost no blood, which is reminiscent of the way films like Texas Chainsaw Massacre operate. Our minds tend to fill in the things that never were, through the director's use of suggestive images and situations. In Centipede's case this translates to lingering anticipation and yearning more than anything, which may leave many feeling unsatiated. The director has alluded in interviews that he intends to complete a trilogy and unleash a more brutal viewpoint in the second film, which leads me to believe this is just the calm before the storm. Six's methodology subverts expectations, which has a lot more to say about its audience than the film itself. Don't get me wrong though, there are several physically uncomfortable moments and they become all the more powerful because Six takes a minimalist approach when it comes to graphic imagery.
Tonally, there are some odd shifts, which work most favorably for Laser's character. His maniacal and downright bizarre sense of humor plays into some of the horror cliches that Six indulges -- in this case the mad scientist performing covert experiments in his secret lab. We're also treated to one of the most overused plot devices, when the girls lose signal to their cell phone. This of course happens after they get a flat tire in the middle of nowhere and find themselves stranded in the woods at night. These contrivances are mainly nestled in the opening of the film, which is deceptive because the rest of the movie is far more compelling.
Six establishes our two leading ladies from the start as clueless and relatively annoying Americans traveling abroad. After their car breaks down, the first man who comes to their aid is a German who takes advantage of their language barrier to humiliate and objectify them. This immediately sets the precedent for a series of events which speaks more to dehumanization, alienation and intolerance than gore. One of the first things we hear the doctor say is that he doesn't like human beings and this quickly becomes glaringly obvious. Heiter thinks of humans as pieces of a whole that only he can define. He tells a truck driver he abducts in the beginning of the film, "You don't match," when he is considering him for his centipede construction -- and then terminates him. Aside from the obvious associations the doctor's behavior has with Germany's dark, political past the film continues to set up situations in which we are constantly reminded of who and what is familiar and foreign -- nicely playing off the film's biological internal and external struggle. The juxtaposition of the doctor's house as dim, cold and clinical is in stark contrast to the lush greenery of the German countryside, further emphasizing this point -- particularly when we see it through the glass doors of his home and when the girls are trying to escape.
The women's encounter with the German stranger in the beginning of the film is the closest we get to an outright sexual act. The medical procedure is violently erotic but is never described as anything but a medical procedure. Other points in the film, however, sexualize the trio -- including a "photo shoot" the doctor forces them to endure, which feels extremely pornographic. Setting the film in Germany allows Six to link his story with the country's well known reputation for extreme fetishism -- something he explores by breaking one of society's ultimate taboos. In one of the most drastic acts, the victims are forced to eat each other's feces, which is one of the most debasing things a human being can be made to do -- even amongst extreme fetishists.
All roads lead back to Bataille for me with Human Centipede. For Bataille, humans are discontinuous beings and death is their only way to return to a continuous existence -- the place where they are truly removed from societal prohibitions. Transgression and sacrifice are the only means by which they can achieve this continuity -- the highest form of which is human sacrifice. Animals have been privy to divine continuity since their beginnings, by escaping the rules of taboo and therefore entering into a kind of sacred world. If humans give reign to their animal nature, then they become that much closer to the divine. Bataille believes that people spend their whole lives in anguish -- passive to the process of life which is "essentially extravagant, drawing on its forces and its reserves unchecked; unchecked it annihilates what it has created." This passivity only aids us in continuing to deny our true nature, " ... but if good luck favors us, the thing we desire most ardently is the most likely to drag us into wild extravagance and to ruin us." The detective novel was Bataille's way of illustrating this point. As the hero in the story risks great dangers, the reader can safely experience the same feelings that we spend our whole lives denying and combating.
This easily translates to film and our own experience of watching Dr. Heiter's exploits carried out on screen -- in effect completing the kind of cycle Bataille discusses. Dr. Heiter, the leading surgeon in his field, risks everything to conduct his experiment. The reasons are never fully divulged, but it seems clear that he feels the pull to transcend his own anguish and in the process becomes closer to the divine. Whether Heiter understands this on a conscious level, or simply feels it, isn't particularly important. The idea that he would jeopardize his life, livelihood, and freedom to achieve it speaks volumes. This recalls Bataille's secret, esoteric society which he helped found -- the Acéphale. The society's symbol was a headless man who represented the group's opposition to a "closed and stifling social existence." But it's not just Heiter this applies to -- the Japanese man's eventual decision to commit suicide when his anguish becomes unbearable fits in with what Bataille and Acéphale felt was required to achieve continuous existence as well, adding one more layer to film's philosophical depth. Kitamura's character has no desire to exist as an animal, yet he regresses to an animalistic state as he attempts to bite out the doctor's throat near the end of the film. When he realizes he's become what he never wanted to be, he slits his own throat rather than endure the existence lying before him. It's also worth noting that the doctor begins his experiments with animals, moves to humans and creates a type of hybrid -- mirroring Bataille's ideas about man's animal nature.
The concepts of sacrifice and suicide seem inextricably linked in Bataille's worldview. "The surrender of individuality makes "one" -- no longer "one" -- part of the cosmic whole. The anxiety of selfhood is transcended, even as the concept of selfhood is both obliterated and affirmed. Transcendental homelessness, a sense of cultural void, a fear of the fragility of the self, sometimes deepening into a loathing of the self or its perceived contexts." We see examples of this in the end of Centipede, both in the death of the head and the fate that befalls the middle. The discussion of transcendental homelessness, a sense of cultural void and self loathing seems particularly applicable to the fate of the Japanese man. Each of the segments has been displaced, but it's especially profound for this character – who can't communicate with his captor or fellow victims because of a language barrier. This feeds into the sense of cultural void as well, as the man talks about the "strength" of the Japanese. As his final scenes play out, it becomes clear that this character is filled with self loathing. He's hated his tormentor for the entire film -- shouting at him repeatedly even though he knows Heiter can't understand him -- but the climax of the film shows that the character's self hatred far exceeds the animosity he feels toward his captor.
Meanwhile, the idea of surrendering individuality seems to be embodied in the fate of the middle segment. Trapped in the house at the end of the film, with her two other segments and everyone else around her dead, she's forced to acknowledge she no longer is an individual at all. She's part of an organism now, and her fate has been essentially decided. Her situation is left unresolved as the credits roll, but even the best possible outcome doesn't seem particularly promising.
Hopefully it has become clear that The Human Centipede isn't just another gross out film -- despite what its own marketing campaign would have you believe. Tom Six has made a film that trades in some weighty ideas and concepts, but many of them are buried under the sheer shock value of its central premise. It's hardly the only film to take Bataille's philosophy and incorporate it into a horror film narrative -- Pascal Laugier's Martyrs covered much of the same territory and in a more satisfactory manner last year -- but it certainly deserves recognition for aspiring to be more than 90 minutes of people being forced to eat sh*t. The Human Centipede isn't a complete success -- not all of the ideas are as fully formed and explored as I would have liked -- but if almost two thousand words don't express my admiration for Centipede's ideas, then I don't know what will. Despite any uncertainties, I'm looking forward to Six's Second Sequence -- a film the director promises "will be almost impossible to watch." Personally, I can't wait.
Bataille, Georges. Erotism: Death and Sensuality. Trans. Mary Dalwood. San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1986. Print.
Bataille, Georges. Visions Of Excess: Selected Writings, 1927-1939 (Theory and History of Literature Volume 14). Trans. Allan Stoekl with Carl R. Lovitt and Donald M. Leslie Jr. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1985. Print.
Torgovnick, Marianna. Gone Primitive: Savage Intellects, Modern Lives. Chicago: University Of Chicago Press, 1991. Print.