“It’s Beautiful” – Hannibal’s Seduction through Visual Pleasure

Curator's Note

The final words of the final (perhaps ever) episode of Hannibal are, “It’s beautiful." Spoken by Will, they attest to showrunner Bryan Fuller’s successful seduction of the viewer as well as Hannibal's seduction of Will. The visual presentation of the narrative is similar to how Hannibal presents his food and his victims. With some technical assistance, I created this montage, which begins with these final words, in order to show how Hannibal creates visual pleasure through the use of aesthetic techniques that allow us to see the beauty in the horror. Will’s line calls back to the pilot episode, when Garret Jacob Hobbs implores Will (and by extension, us) to "see"; an invitation to consider more closely the look of the show.

As the montage illustrates, the principles of art such as balance, unity, rhythm, pattern and emphasis are encoded into Hannibal’s visuals, particularly the more gruesome elements, so that they can be decoded like high art. The frequent use of classical music in the soundtrack as well as cinematic techniques like crane shots encourage the viewer to find the aesthetics impressive. However, these overtly composed moments are not simply pleasing in the way that most would recognise as beautiful; often there is a fusion of the attractive with the repulsive on an operatic scale, like the flower tree man and the suspended angel. These baroque tableaux present this gothic horror with the trappings of beauty and, in doing so, create intentional moments of cognitive dissonance.

These strategies don't work on all viewers. So who is susceptible to this type of seduction? The text has a passionate audience of fannibals who are, like me, often educated, culturally-aware women who appreciate the show’s artistic and cinematic influences. The horrific-but-beautiful images, may be more appealing to a female viewer for a variety of reasons. Do female viewers, in particular, crave both visual pleasure and perverse allegiance in their horror more than they want to be scared? Or do we simply know what it takes Will three seasons to learn: you can’t have beauty without horror too.


Kirsty you raise some interesting questions about whether people who watch the series recognize how Fuller uses aesthetics to create both an intellectual and emotional response to his mode of storytelling. Indeed there are moments where the baroque style of narrative, especially in the first half of season 3 is gorgeous and moving in a way that most American television is not. In fact, I find your choice of word "baroque" to describe the way Fuller employs aesthetics in his attempt to invert quality TV and deconstruct viewer expectations to be telling. In showing that there is a beauty in violence Fuller draws upon a long cinematic tradition including the work of Peckinpah, Lynch, and De Palma. Thus in making violence stylized and beautiful- Fuller is able to focus the viewer's attention on the narrative complexity and emotional resonance of his series, while at the same time deconstructing American viewer's penchant for violence over character- a tactic that Michael Haneke addressed in his brilliant film Funny Games. Still, I am left to wonder why so many critics have assumed that Fuller's aesthetic mostly appeals to female viewers. I think there are many men who are equally celebratory of the series and of Fuller's work. In fact, what I think is truly refreshing about Fuller's work with Hannibal is that he creates male characters that are more honest and emotionally focused rather than ones that feel as if they were designed simply for action and violence.

I'd venture to guess that it's that very thing you observe - that "male characters... are more honest and emotionally focused" here than in many other narratives that's at the crux of the issue. Which is to say, again putting this in the context of critically acclaimed dramas such as Breaking Bad and Mad Men, where so much Quality TV seems to be predicated on intellectualized explorations of masculinity (and this reminds me of how revolutionary Tony Soprano's therapy was considered when it aired), in Hannibal intellectualization is tossed out the window in favor of a singularly melodramatic (in the generic sense) exploration. In this sense, it's reminiscent of - if not the same as - what's been happening in Sherlock - also firmly fixed in a melodramatic exploration of male friendship+; but where the Sherlock producers have a demonstratedly uneasy relationship with 'overly' affective engagement with the show (despite a narrative that very clearly invites that engagement), Fuller seems to throw his arms open through a practically pulsing embrace of narrative, aesthetic, and even extra-textual (fandom) excess that fits most neatly within discourses of female fannish fervor. Which I think is to say that these critiques are entirely indicative of nothing so much as the discomfort the critical establishment has with what Fuller (and De Palma, in particular - the most transgressively excessive of this bunch, arguably, since he, too, eschews intellectualized storytelling for a more populist approach) is doing (see also, the critical establishment's discomfort with female fandom and its 'hysteria')...?

Thanks Brian. I absolutely recognise the cinematic influences you mention in the show, and certainly I noticed the increased frequency of time given over each episode for the overtly stylistic moments in season three in comparison to the previous seasons. And, even though I can think of several examples which are exceptions to this, Hannibal seems to favour presenting the effects of violence with aesthetic pleasure rather than the violence itself; I wonder the how that plays into the perceived conventional desires of audiences for both horror and crime genre texts. It's interesting the point you raise about the gendered audience. The obvious participation in the fandom in online spaces appears, at least on its surface, to be more feminine, with online gender identities not always being stated or easily recognised. In these spheres the behaviour may be attributed to females more readily than males because of hegemonic ideas of gendered attitudes and behaviours. Is the perception of the audience skewed by the ways that male and female viewers demonstrate their passion for a text in different ways and sometimes in different spaces? What's curious for me, though is that in my two years of using Hannibal as a case study text in my classroom is the differences in reactions to it, which in part seem to be affected by gender. I'm simplifying here, but the designation of the text as having a female audience has resulted in putting off some male students, and they have often been quite vocal about their dislike and perhaps this reaction is part of a much bigger issue regarding the gendering of texts and audiences in accordance with hetero-normative notions of gender.

"the designation of the text as having a female audience has resulted in putting off some male students." Absolutely agreed, and I think it extends to the critical establishment, so that when Fuller doesn't just tolerate or even accept, but embraces the (gendered) online fandom through flower crowns, "murder husbands," and an official tumblr account par excellence, he's doing something every bit as transgressive and refreshing as what the show itself does.

Fascinated by this discussion for several reasons. First, I love your read in re: the specific (perhaps inherent?) appeal of the visuals to feminine-gendered audiences. I am very much NOT a horror fan, and as a viewer, I've not always been conscious of the ways that the visual, narrative, and stylistic tropes of that genre get deployed/monkeyed with within it, so your thoughts are tres illuminating in that regard, especially the introduction of gender to the discussion. There are some threads here that echo nicely with Allison's piece in Antenna last month about Abigail Hobbs. Second, this question--"So who is susceptible to this type of seduction?"--is an excellent one, and one that it would be interesting to turn back into the series itself. The most prominent seductions in the series are Hannibal's of Will's, and vice versa. Both men, at various points, seem to understand seduction as a weapon, or at least as a tool: Will spends the second half of season 2 and (arguably a lot longer) trying to woo Hannibal. Hannibal, in turn, strategically seduces both Alana and Bedelia (who wants to be seduced, IMO, but that's a discussion for another day). Will also seems particularly open to seduction--from Hannibal, in his own way, and from Margot and Chiyo (though at least Chiyo had the good sense to toss him off of a train)--a quality that's usually assigned to a female character. Long way of saying! that the concept of seduction, in the visuals and within the narrative itself, reads like an incredibly productive approach to the text. Excellent stuff. Finally, to Lori's point that-- >Fuller doesn’t just tolerate or even accept, but embraces the (gendered) online fandom --I would add that Fuller even structures his creative work with the shared archive of Hannibal movies, novels, etc. in terms of fannish engagement. He is a fan, just like us--his fanfiction just gets broadcast on TV. (Here's hoping it will be again.)

Sorry I am late to the party today! This entire conversation is wonderful --love the points about the way quality tv is gendered and the way Fuller is inverting that, in both text and interactions with audience. Absolutely agree with Kirtsy that male students are distancing themselves because girls like the show, but also because of the excessive "feminine" textual elements which they have been socialized to identify with girls (and hence to culturally devalue, consciously or unconsciously). And I don't know as much about the UK, but in the U.S. liking "art" too much is seen as emasculating, and this program is self-consciously "arty" without, as Lori suggests, the mitigating factors of violence/action and other "masculine" textual elements. Love KT's point about it being seductive, romantic -- Fuller wants you to linger over the images and appreciate the excess. And love the connections with filmmakers here, so on point. To address Kirsty's post, when I think about the text appealing to women, think the fact that Fuller is explicit about not showing sexual violence is very important; the text is fantasy, not socio-realism. As I argued regarding Abigail's character, horror and fantasy texts allow for the displacement, even transformation, of traumatic experience in ways that do not feel exploitative -- the horror/beauty dynamic being a primary way of doing this--and therefore Hannible is able to address trauma, grief, mental illness, etc., in ways that aren't triggering. I think it's significant that this is a text championed by young women (especially on tumblr), who are very sensitive to exploitative representations.

I teach it as part of a broader Media Studies course for 17-18 year olds, which includes a module on television. I usually pair it with Sherlock and explore how genre texts can differ for mainstream and niche audiences. I've always used Aperitif and Potage as two episodes which set up the show. Generally they've been really receptive.

That's so encouraging! Hannibal does have a strong sense of itself right from the start, so I can see how showing early episodes would work. Sherlock is an interesting text to use in conjunction with Hannibal, especially for talking about producer-audience relationships.

This is the term that always comes to mind for me as well, particularly from S2 onwards; I wonder how we might play this out from just the visuals? I'm thinking of, for example, the show's uses of music (classical pieces that each seem to reference something a bit different - The Goldberg Variations always seeming to cite the moment in The Silence of the Lambs when Lecter kills the officer against that musical backdrop, but also the Peer Gynt suite when Will is imagining what might have been, among so many others - artworks, and literary/biblical citations (I absolutely do not swoon when Hannibal is quoting Revelations while talking to Jack about Will)). The whole thing seems like a kind of sensual AND intellectual smorgasbord... and maybe even something of a departure from what we see in Season 1, with its more (intellectualized/studied) Kubrickian coldness...?

Yes! The layers of references become so pointed and compounded particularly in season 3. For me one of the great pleasures of watching this show with a social media backdrop is being able to soak up and pool those references with the hive mind in the days, weeks and months after the airing, with every new influence or connection that I didn't initially spot being enriching the experience even more. As a visual person, I particularly love the comparisons between frames of the show and classical paintings like this - http://thelightpendulum.tumblr.com/post/129413841874/you-belong-among-wi...

YES. This brings me back to the reply I made to a comment Rebecca Williams left on my post about auteurism, in which I basically said (tl;dr) that Fuller at once exhibits characteristics of an auteur (in particular, certain thematic preoccupations), but fully against a backdrop of collaborative production in which cast, writers, and crew all equally - openly and quite vocally - create what we see on the screen. So that, your observation of the online hive mind both fits in with this - if production is collaborative here, so too is reception - and seems quite a nice example of Jenkins's convergence-related hive mind discussions (against that, Hannibal is almost an exercise in learning how to unmoor the text from fixed interpretation, maybe...).

Thank you for the beautiful vid, Kirsty! It really showcases the amazing set design, special effects, and camera work on the show. For me, the beauty-in-horror is one of the least appealing aspects of the show. I never even expected to watch Hannibal precisely because I didn't want to see all the horrific things that Twitter told me were happening on the show. As I watched, I averted my eyes for most of the murder tableaus (although they have been easier to glimpse at while rewatching). That said, I agree that the show absolutely sets out to link beauty and horror and to have characters realize that the two are interconnected.

Thanks Melanie! I've always been more drawn to the gothic and overtly aestheticised corners of horror, like Tarsem Singh's The Cell, for example. Reactions to the tension in moments where horror and beauty are present fascinates me. I guess it ties back to some of what Lori was saying yesterday about the attractiveness of the monster, and where I found the Genesis of this piece; the idea that the visuals align us with Hannibal and in finding any of it beautiful that we somehow became complicit. I'm glad that you were intrigued enough to watch the show, and that you've found it beautiful and difficult, which I'm sure is the reaction that Fuller et al. we're trying to provoke.

It's funny that you mention The Cell because that's among my top three most traumatic experiences at the movies (along with Pan's Labyrinth and 28 Days Later). You can see why I was hesitant about Hannibal, but I'm so glad that Allison made me watch it because I thoroughly enjoyed it--so much so that I immediately started rewatching it. Re: "the visuals align us with Hannibal and in finding any of it beautiful that we somehow became complicit" -- yes, absolutely.

I was first interested in watching the series precisely because I love horror and I love the Hannibal Lecter universe and the first time I watched each episode I found the the murder tableaus to be extremely disturbing (and beautiful as well). When I rewatch, I find I read these scenes much more in terms of their aesthetics than I did on first viewing and the "shock" of them is lessened as I've become more invested in the series and how the murders tend to speak to character development or frame of mind, for example, across the episodes. When compared with other horror TV shows, I wonder how Hannibal compares. I've always found other shows in the genre (something like Dexter springs to mind) to be lacking in the sort of horror/beauty that I find som appealing in Hannibal. Are there any other shows that are even remotely comparable?

I've spent sometime reflecting on your final question, Rebecca, and I'm really struggling to come up with another example of horror television with a similar set of aesthetic values in relation to death and gore. My mind keeps going back to Dexter, as you suggested, but it seems, at least from my recollections, that these elements were presented with some theatricality, particularly the victims of the Doomsday Killer, there was a sense that the killer found the deaths beautiful and symbolic as opposed to the positioning the spectator to view the scenes similarly, which we find in Hannibal. Outside of television, in art and cinema I can think of examples more readily; the work of photographer Joel Peter Witkin and films like The Cell and Wisconsin Death Trip spring most readily to mind. If nothing else this reflects the idea of television as accessible media for the masses, whereas art to a greater and cinema to a lesser extent have to be more actively pursued and consumed by the reader, allowing such challenging content to be accessed by more niche audience. Considering these factors makes Hannibal's existence on a mainstream network like NBC even more paradoxical.

I too cannot really think of anything in the same league as Hannibal in this way. TV horror is now fairly common (things like Bates Motel, AHS etc spring to mind) but none of these really deal with death in anything like the way Hannibal does. Dexter makes me think of overlaps with Hannibal largely in terms of the trope of the sympathetic serial killer but, as you point out, there's still a great deal of distance between how this works for the viewer.

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