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Incest, cannibalism, violence: 2022 was the year of depravity

Timothée Chalamet made cannibalism sexy, incest hit the mainstream, and creatives mined gruesome conspiracies to shock and entertain. How did culture get so grim?

Twenty years ago, over 200 people walked out of the Cannes premiere of Gaspar Noé’s revenge film Irréversible, and another 20 had to be treated with oxygen after fainting at its graphic depictions of rape and violence. Around the same time, American filmmakers like Eli Roth were toying with “torture porn” and writers like Bret Easton Ellis were doing the same for literature, while in Britain the YBAs were shaking up the art establishment (see: Chris Ofili’s scatological visions of the Virgin Mary, the Chapman brothers’ disturbingly sexualised toddler mannequins, and Marcus Harvey’s portrait of Myra Hindley in kids’ handprints).

Even as the public and press exploded with outrage in the 90s and early 2000s, though, many were already heralding the death of shock. “Being sensational isn’t sensational anymore,” Damien Hirst lamented to fellow Goldsmiths alum Liam Gillick during one interview. “People do it all the time.”

Hirst might have just been making a flippant remark to boost his nonchalant persona. Jump forward three decades, though, and culture does feel slightly tamer than what came before it. At least, it fails to provoke the kind of mainstream moral panics endured (or enjoyed) by the likes of Noé or Hirst at the peak of their controversy. When there is outrage, it’s almost exclusively about politics – racial insensitivity, sexist stereotypes, important but ultimately quite boring discussions – and rarely about the images and themes in the actual art, its style. Yes, these political issues cause upset and hurt, but people are ultimately reaching for their phones, not an oxygen mask. As Noé himself told Dazed earlier this year: “Cinema is turning so boring nowadays.”

Why? Maybe artists like Noé, Ellis, and the YBAs helped normalise shock to the point that we just don’t feel it anymore. Maybe the internet – where real horrors are always just a click away – has done away with the need for scandalous fictions. Maybe the acute awareness of perpetual crises in the 2010s and early 20s left us wanting our hearts warmed, instead of our stomachs turned.

Looking back on 2022, though, it seems like we’re ready to take the plunge back into darkness and depravity – to plumb depths that pop culture hasn’t previously dared to explore. We’re talking cannibalism, incest, and flirtations with child trafficking conspiracies. All the fun stuff!

In November 2022, Luca Guadagnino released Bones and All, a road trip movie that follows Taylor Russell and Timothée Chalamet across rural America. The scenery is beautiful, and beautifully captured by cinematographer Arseni Khachaturan. The chemistry between the two young drifters is undeniable as they gradually fall in love. But there’s a catch: they both have a taste for human flesh, putting them on a collision course (and moral battleground) with fellow “eaters” such as Mark Rylance’s terrifying Sully. “I loved how seemingly misunderstood she was, and that she represented this sort of isolation I feel acutely for whatever reason in my life,” Russell says of her character, Maren, in a Dazed cover interview. “I’m not as peculiar as Maren and her wants. But the role did ease something in me.” As always, there’s an uneasy glimmer of familiarity in the darkness.

Bones and All isn’t the first time that cannibalism has hit the big screen, of course; cult films such as Julia Ducournau’s Raw, American Psycho, and Cannibal Holocaust (naturally) have explored this most unsavoury appetite in the past. Luca Guadagnino, however, takes cannibal cinema to new heights – not least because he casts Call Me By Your Name heartthrob Chalamet as one of the film’s corpse-consuming teenagers, propelling it beyond mere cult appeal. (How many CMBYN fans missed Guadagnino’s intervening, ultra-violent adaptation of Suspiria and got a nasty shock in the first few minutes?) The new film doesn’t shy away from its grisly subject, either, with graphic visuals that caused several critics to walk out when it first premiered in Venice. Perhaps more importantly, Guadagnino, Russell, and Chalamet dare to make cannibalism – in all of its bone-cracking, gut-slurping goriness – kind of… sexy?

Speaking of hot cannibals, this year also saw Marvel superhero and Pam & Tommy star Sebastian Stan play a fictional serial killer who harvests the flesh of young women – namely Normal People’s Daisy Edgar-Jones, who also partakes in a murderous meal, albeit reluctantly – for a ring of rich people-eaters in the glossy Hulu horror-comedy Fresh. Evan Peters, meanwhile, controversially took a turn as the “Milwaukee Cannibal” in The Jeffrey Dahmer Story, the first instalment in Ryan Murphy’s true crime anthology Monster. The hot-actor-to-cannibal-flick pipeline is very real in 2022.

Cannibalism is far from the only taboo to grace our screens this year, though, nor is it the most popular. That accolade goes, bizarrely, to incest. For proof, look no further than one of the biggest TV shows of 2022, the Games of Thrones prequel House of the Dragon. Not only does the show feature many instances of intrafamily romance, but it romanticises and justifies it to such an extent – the Targaryens have to fuck each other to keep riding dragons, or something? – that it prompted mainstream publications to actually come out in defence of incest. Fictional incest, that is. And that’s before we got an apparent nephew-uncle hookup in season two of White Lotus. Or the Hamlet-inspired incest storyline featuring Alexander Skarsgård and Nicole Kidman in Viking epic The Northman (the closest thing to a Robert Eggers action movie to date, which scores bonus depravity points for the cannibalistic overtones of its nose-biting scene).

By this point, you might be wondering how culture got so dark in 2022, and that’s a good question. Mike White, the creator of White Lotus, appears to offer some explanation in a recent interview on the topic of the show’s much-talked-about incest twist. “There’s a pleasure to me as a guy who is gay-ish to make gay sex transgressive again,” White tells Variety. “I just think transgressive sex is sexier. I guess I’m old school.”

The key word here is “old school”. White frames the possible incest scene as a return to a time when content was shocking, and even mainstream media wasn’t afraid to offend. A time before everything got, as Noé puts it, “so boring”. Is that what 2022’s turn toward the ultimate taboos of cannibalism and incest is all about? Getting a rise out of an audience that has become all-too accustomed to the taboos of years gone by – the violent, the sacrilegious, and the scatological? Maybe. But it’s also worth considering a darker theory: that today’s artists, filmmakers, and writers are simply reflecting themes that are emerging IRL, reflecting a slide in public morals, or a latent immorality that’s increasingly brought to light by ubiquitous surveillance and extremity-loving algorithms.

The evidence? Well, for one, the last few years have seen a spike in incest-themed porn. Over the course of the 2010s, the taboo genre apparently increased in popularity by more than 1,000 per cent. No surprise, then, that in Pornhub’s rundown of the most popular search terms of 2022 “step mom” comes in at number seven, and family-themed content on OnlyFans is flourishing. Of course, this doesn’t mean that incest is actually having a moment IRL, but it does hint at an underlying appetite to push the boundaries of what’s sexually acceptable. See also: Armie Hammer’s cannibalistic sexts that leaked in January 2021, just weeks before the initial announcement of Bones and All, in what must be one of the worst-timed rollouts in recent memory.

Armie Hammer isn’t all we’ve got to worry about in terms of real-world cannibals, though, if the far-right galaxy brains behind QAnon are to be believed. Since 2017, the conspiracy movement has pushed its narrative that the world is secretly controlled by a shadowy cabal of elite, Satanic, cannibalistic child abusers. It’s hard to imagine that wasn’t at least on Mimi Cave’s moodboard for Fresh, a film that literally revolves around a man who butchers young women for super-wealthy clients.

This conspiratorial thinking goes both ways, too, inspiring art and tearing it apart in equal measure. In late November, Balenciaga was forced to apologise after its SS23 campaign was widely criticised for its inclusion of kids clutching teddy bears in fetishwear, as well as damning documents related to a Supreme Court decision on child pornography. Also spotted in the background of an Isabelle Huppert-starring campaign shot: a book by Michaël Borremans, whose sinister paintings of toddlers covered in gore recall the work of Jake and Dinos Chapman (YBAs who were also, inexplicably, dragged into the Balenciaga drama via a series of logical leaps that entangled them in a vast conspiracy about Kering, the fashion label’s parent company).

Why Balenciaga, photographer Chris Maggio, set designer Nicholas Des Jardins, and production company North Six allowed the controversial objects to sneak into the shoot – and how much influence each party had over the final images – is still unclear, although the brand has distanced itself in subsequent statements, saying: “We strongly condemn child abuse; it was never our intent to include it in our narrative.” It’s also unclear whether these images were intended to form a single, shocking vision, or whether the conspiracy-pilled internet hivemind – conditioned to find clues and weave them into a unified narrative, the more sordid the better – simply free-associated it into existence. 

One thing that the Balenciaga fallout does make clear, though – alongside the Bones and All walkouts, the distaste for fictional adaptations of real serial killer stories, and the attraction-repulsion response to the inundation of incest tales – is the fact that artists do still possess the ability to shock in the year of our lord 2022. Whether they dare to or not is up to them. Just know: it’s going to take more than a bit of sex and violence.

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