For almost 30 years now, people across the globe have been enamored with the budding relationship displayed in The Silence of the Lambs. There have been countless think-pieces, t-shirts and cute Youtube videos made on the love shared between Clarice Starling and Hannibal Lecter. In a documentary on the making of the film, Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins even get in on the fun. When asked about the relationship dynamic between their two characters, Foster states that “She (Starling) doesn’t say ‘You’re a monster’. She says, ‘I don’t trust you not to kill me but… there’s a love between us, a human love’”. Hopkins, in response, says that “I’ve never said this before, I think he (Lecter) has a form of love for her. I think he loves her in a way”.
Far be it from me to disagree with two Academy Award winning actors like Foster and Hopkins, but I’m going to. They couldn’t be more wrong. There is nothing even remotely resembling “love” between these two characters, and to claim that there is means that you’re missing the whole point of the film. Let’s take a step back into the bowels of the Baltimore State Forensic Hospital and see if we can’t dissect this relationship with this blunt little tool.
Fly Back to School, Little Starling
Starling’s initial meeting with Lecter could not have gone more poorly for her. She fumbled her way through some misguided stabs at humor and completely turns off Lecter from ever wanting to speak to her again. His famous speech about how she reminds him of a “rube” is enough to know that he isn’t having any part of it. It really didn’t take that long to decide this, either. If you go back to the beginning of their meeting, you can immediately see his disdain for her and her station at the FBI. “Jack Crawford sent a trainee, to me?” he asks her, stunned and offended at the thought.
What we initially see during this exchange, and what we gather as an audience, is that Hannibal is mean to poor Clarice because he feels that she is beneath him. He talks about her West Virginia upbringing to shame her into running away, only to scream for her return after what Miggs did to her in the hallway. I don’t see this interaction that way, and here’s why: Hannibal knew exactly who she was and what she was all about the moment she stepped in front of his cell. He mentions it several times. He talks about her skin cream, the perfume that she sometimes wears (“but not today”), her expensive bag and her cheap shoes, and the accent she is trying so very desperately to erase. He gathered everything he needed to know about her in the span of a few seconds, and he uses that information against her.
“His altruism in helping her and her desire for advancement is false, like every other emotion he has ever displayed in his life.”
He is bored. Brilliant and stiflingly bored. He draws Florence from memory because he has nothing else to do. Clarice’s entrance into his life is the first interesting thing that has happened to him in years. When I watch this film, I have no doubt that Hannibal knew exactly what was going on in the cell next to him. He knew when to tell her to “fly away” and why. His diatribe against her upbringing and her “sticky, tedious fumblings in the back seats of cars” is the first step in any abusive relationship; he was trying to break her down, to rip a hole into her psyche so that he can fill it. Lecter doesn’t actually care about Clarice’s treatment at the hand(s) of Miggs, he is merely using that as an excuse to continue playing with his toy. Like a cat, he broke the mouse’s leg so that he could continue to paw at it some more. His altruism in helping her and her desire for advancement is false, like every other emotion he has ever displayed in his life.
His “murder” of Miggs was not a defense of her sensibilities, either. It was another move in his game. He knew that she would find out, and it would help her to trust him. Killing Miggs was fun for him, and it was probably something he had wanted to do for a long while. Lecter did it when he did as a show of “good faith” to Clarice. He did it to manipulate her into their arrangement during their next meeting.
Quid Pro Quo
You can clearly see that Lecter broke Clarice down using just his intellect in their first meeting. Every viewer walks away from this movie seeing that fact. What they fail to see is that she left the hospital broken and hurting, not because of what Miggs had done to her, but because of the memories that Lecter opened up in her mind. She left the hospital remembering her father and the love that she had for him. Do you think this was a mistake? It wasn’t. Lecter ripped open her soul and brought back the fatherly abandonment issues that she had locked down deep inside. He wanted her to need a father. He wanted her to be broken.
During their next meeting, Lecter proposes a deal. He wants out of this basement cell. He wants a view. He wants to see the sun. Clarice is his gateway to this arrangement. After she returns with a bogus deal from Senator Martin, he decides that he’s having way too much fun for this to be over just yet. In exchange for his help in the Buffalo Bill case, he suggests a little game:
“If I help you, Clarice, it will be “turns” for us too. Quid pro quo – I tell you things, you tell me things. Not about this case, though. About yourself. Quid pro quo. Yes or no? [pause] Yes or no, Clarice? Poor little Catherineis waiting.”
Hannibal doesn’t suggest this because he is genuinely concerned with Clarice’s past or her emotional health. He wants to further ingratiate himself into her psyche. He wants to attach himself to the most intimate and personal memories of her life. Now, when she hears the lambs screaming, she will be thinking of him. Buffalo Bill is secondary, the deal with Senator Martin is secondary. He is destroying her, molding her to his will like a clump of clay, and he’s doing it for two reasons. First of all, it will get him an opportunity to escape. Do you actually think he wanted a transfer for a view? No way. He wanted a transfer so that he could escape. Secondly, he’s doing this to Clarice because it’s fun.
Ready When You Are, Sergeant Pembry
I’m not saying that Starling isn’t getting anything out of this relationship. Lecter is genuinely helping her advance and catch Buffalo Bill, but he isn’t doing it out of the goodness of his heart. He isn’t doing it because he sees some of himself in her. He is doing it because he had to give her something or else Crawford would have pulled her back to Quantico right after their first visit. This last in-person visit that they have while Lecter is being transferred drives the point home that he has been manipulating Starling this whole time. As they are talking, Lecter finally tears down to the bottom of her mind and makes her recite the story of her and the lambs. He finds her motivations in life. Not just in this case, but her entire reason for living. Clarice has revealed to him everything that makes her who she is, and he has enjoyed every second of it.
This is what Lecter used to do to his patients. If he felt like it, he would destroy their entire sense of self and fashion them into whatever he wanted them to be. He is the master manipulator, playing god with whomever he chooses. As Starling is being dragged away by Chilton, he utters the words that seal her to him forever. As she begs him for the killer’s name, he dismisses her with, “Brave Clarice. You will let me know when those lambs stop screaming, won’t you?”.
“In a way, [Lecter] has fixed [Clarice], but not because of love. He did it because he is god.”
“Brave Clarice”. That’s what she has wanted to hear her entire life. Ever since her father’s life was taken from her, she has had this drive to become the best version of him that she can be. She wants him to be able to see her, to admire her, to love her like he did before he died. Clarice wants her father to know that she is brave. This is what Lecter has been working for this entire time. Those two words filled the hole that he created inside of Clarice. He has replaced her father in those dreams, in those desires. When she feels those insecurities start to bubble up inside of her, she will be thinking about Lecter, not her father. In a way, he has fixed her, but not because of love. He did it because he is god. It’s Lecter’s final move. His checkmate, you might say.
You see, Hannibal and Clarice didn’t love one another. There was no “human love” between them, like Jodie Foster mentioned in her interview. There was nothing there because Lecter is incapable of feeling love, or empathy, or any type of altruism at all. Lecter is a total and complete psychopathic narcissist, and he manipulated his and Starling’s relationship because it felt good to destroy someone and build them back up in whatever image he desired. He is his own god, and now he has a new member of his church.
As a viewer, it’s easy to get these emotions confused. He seems to show her kindness and he acts like he is concerned about her. He claims to care about rudeness, about politeness, and about warmth, but this is a façade created to fool us all. When we watch The Silence of the Lambs, there is a part of us that genuinely cheers for the monster. We want to see Lecter get away! This isn’t a mistake on the filmmaker’s part. It’s a very real phenomenon that some of the worst psychopaths have displayed throughout history. It’s why there were women cheering for Ted Bundy at his trial. It’s why people still, to this day, defend and desire school shooters. Psychopaths shows us exactly what we want to see. They put on a mask that is tailor-made to win each and every one of us over.
That’s what Lecter does in The Silence of the Lambs. He displays true affection, care, and concern, even though he has never felt those emotions in his life. Hannibal Lecter doesn’t love, he consumes. In Clarice Starling’s case, he used psychology to destroy her, instead of a knife. She is another one of his victims, only she is one whose grave he can continue to revisit. By the time the final phone call is made at the end of the film, he has killed and eaten Clarice, without ever having lifted a finger.
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