Duane Michals’s People Eat People follows a couple’s increasingly frenetic argument over a romantic letter. However, within this contained, rather straightforward scenario, the director makes use of visual interplay, sound overlapping, and multiple exposure to display the inner states of each actor, thus transforming the film’s groundwork into a fully formed, emotionally resonating experience along the way.
The letter in question is addressed to a lover concerning an unforgettable stay in Paris. A woman (Whitney Harris) approaches her boyfriend (Derek Stratton) upon discovering it, shifting from confusion to worry to anger and so on from there. When somewhat of a reversal in their dynamic occurs by the final reveal, it becomes clear that we have immersed ourselves in the performances and direction more so than anything else.
With a stark, unembellished cinematography that only hints at an apartment beyond the actors’ close-ups—in addition to a plot that is fragmented through sometimes disembodied, non-linear, repeated dialogue so we catch fleeting bits of information—the setting becomes more of an emotional vacuum than a physical space; the characters are multiplied in different conditions at different points in time, all within the same claustrophobic frame.
As a result, the actors themselves (especially Harris) and the experimental direction command the screen. The entire centerpiece of People Eat People—the argument over the letter—is sandwiched between a beautiful shot of the protagonists embracing in bed and seemingly melding into one another’s bodies while the soft ticking of a clock accentuates, perhaps, their relationship’s “lifespan” outside of these intimate moments that we see throughout. This shot’s placement at the very beginning creates a sensuality, a tender longing before the storm. As it is intercut between the heated exchanges towards the end, however, it evokes a devastating nostalgia. The inner vacuum of the film is thereby brought into full perspective; for better or for worse, these memories will linger even as the “outside world” and the passage of time barrel forward.
If there were an ultimate “narrative impact” to be had from all the technical and performative flair on display, it would certainly be Harris’s journey. Despite her and Stratton’s assertion for the duration of the film, it is the former who we really experience everything with. Stratton is kept on the periphery while Harris’s emotional beats are front-and-center, as she is the one searching for answers and fighting to make sense of a difficult situation with high personal stakes. With the haunting final shot that brings us even closer to her (literally, as the camera’s close-ups tighten even further), we are left with a similar ferocity and deep-cutting loss after following her all the way into the rabbit hole of this emotional space.
From Michals’s kaleidoscopic directorial approach to the interplay and overplay of images and sounds, anchored all the while by a committed central performance, People Eat People explores its small moments to great potential and touches upon guttural truths of human intimacy.