Cannibal Histories: Some Comments on Nelson Pereira dos Santos’s How Tasty Was My Little Frenchman

Michael Wintroub

University of California, Berkeley


News flash: direct from the New World.

The script, written by Admiral Nicolas Durand de Villegaignon (1510-1570), knight of Malta and leader of France’s colonial outpost, Fort Coligny, in the Bay of Guanabara (in what was to become Brazil), describes the scene:  “The country is a barren desert.  There are no houses, nor any other commodities. The natives are barbarous savages, different from us, without any religion, or any knowledge of honesty or virtue, or what is right and unjust. They are beasts with human faces.” The announcer speaks and the newsreel rolls.  The contrast between word and image is immediate and striking. We see not a desert inhabited by barbaric and uncivilized savages, but an exotic paradise filled with beautiful naked women. So begins the 1971 anti-colonial Cinema Novo farce How Tasty Was My Little Frenchman (Como Era Gostoso o Meu Francês) by Nelson Pereira dos Santos. The disjuncture between sound and screen continues, as much a commentary on European colonialism as a cleverly disguised critique of Brazil’s repressive military dictatorship. Don’t TastyFrenchmanlisten to the authorities, dos Santos seems to be telling his audience; the historical record has been falsified, watch and you will see another story unfold. The newscaster continues, quoting and paraphrasing Villegaignon’s 1557 letter to Jean Calvin: “Our neighbors” he says, “are Portuguese. Unable to keep the country for themselves, they hardly tolerate our presence and hate us.”[1] Not only, it seems, were there dangerous savages everywhere, there were also Portuguese. How bad could things get? Villegaignon is resolute in the face of these challenges:  “I must show firmness and courage,” he says, “and prepare my ‘family’ for permanent work.” This work is backbreaking, especially when compared to the erotic temptations offered by a paradise free from all constraints of religion, morality, and law. To prevent a wholesale abandonment of his colony, Villegaignon sets up “camp on an island two leagues from the mainland”; this, he says, will “discourage any attempt to escape and allow our troops to fulfill their task.” Despite these precautions, twenty-six of the colonists rebel against the Admiral’s harsh rule; as he puts it, “tempted by their carnal lust, [they] conspired against me.” One of these men is released from his chains to plead his case, but breaks free and drowns attempting to escape. The footage, however, shows a very different version of events, one where the supposed rebel is put in chains, prayed over, and perfunctorily executed. This is where dos Santos’s alternative history takes over, moving from Villegaignon’s letter to Calvin to a fictive appropriation of Hans Staden’s 1557 Warhaftige Historia und beschreibung eyner Landtschafft der Wilden Nacketen, Grimmigen Menschfresser-Leuthen in der Newenwelt America gelegen (True Story and Description of a Country of Wild, Naked, Grim, Man-eating People in the New World, America).

Staden’s story of captivity among the Tupinambá is well known, and dos Santos stays relatively close to it, making only minor modifications—namely, he translates the German Staden into a French rebel from Villegaignon’s France Antarctique, the colony (and Huguenot refuge) established in the Bay of Rio by Villegaignon with the support of the Admiral de France, the Protestant Gaspar de Coligny in 1555;[2] and, whereas Staden eventually escapes his Tupi captors, dos Santos’s fictional Frenchman has no such luck. But I’m getting ahead of myself. We need an appetizer before moving on to the main course. In dos Santos’s telling of the tale, the French rebel doesn’t “drown,” rather, he escapes thus allowing him to be incorporated into Staden’s story of inter-European conflict and the native proxy wars that developed around them: first, he is captured by a group of Portuguese sailors, then the Portuguese are captured by the Tupinambá, who are allied with the French and consider the Portuguese (and their allies, the Tupiniquin) mortal enemies.

The Frenchman knows only one word in the Tupi language, Mair, the word for French. I am French; I am French, he desperately tells his captors. The Tupi chief forces his prisoners to speak, to test whether or not they are indeed his enemies. The Portuguese sailors recite a recipe for lamprey stew; the Frenchman, on the other hand, turns to the language of the court, speaking the part of Jodelle’s dedicatory epistle to André Thevet’s Les Singularités de la France Antarctique:

Ces barbares marchent tous nus,
Et nous, nous marchons inconnus,
Fardés, masqués.[3]

The irony of this refrain, spoken again and again when the Frenchman only wants to be taken for what he is—not Portuguese, but French—is lost on the Tupi chief, Cunhambebe. Indeed, to him, all Europeans look (and sound) alike, but he’s no fool and he can see through their “masks:” “I have already captured and eaten five Portuguese,” he says, “and every one of them has pretended to be French.” In the end, the Frenchman does not convince his captors; he is brought back to the Tupi village as a slave to Cunhambebe; and he is given a beautiful Tupi wife, Sebiopepe. It is her job to seduce the Frenchman—both sexually and culturally.  Not only does she satisfy all his sexual desires, she teaches him Tupi ways and, ultimately, how he ought to die.[4] Under her tutelage his clothes fall away, his beard disappears, his hair takes on a Tupi guise, and he comes to participate fully in the daily life of the village, from finding food, to becoming a warrior and going to war against the Tupinambá’s enemies. In other words, he goes native.

Or does he?

The love story that develops between Sebiopepe (the “my” in How Tasty Was My Little Frenchman) and the Little Frenchman displays incommensurable understandings of love. The Little Frenchman seems to love romantically (perhaps anachronistically so), while for Sebiopepe, love is bounded by her desire to make the Little Frenchman over into one who deserves to be loved—and eaten—by her village.  She, like Cunhambebe, asks him again and again if he can face his end like a worthy enemy (not like a weeping Portuguese)—in other words, would he become an enemy powerful and fearless enough to merit being consumed?

Despite her guidance, the Little Frenchman completely misunderstands his role as her husband, and is ultimately condemned by a specifically European construct of love.  Thus, rather than escaping when the opportunity presents itself, he returns to Sebiopepe, promising to take her away to see things she has never imagined, and to give her things no one else has. Her love, however, dictates another ending entirely, one on a Brazilian barbeque, where her husband—that, she says, she will miss very much—will provide her and her village a very good meal.

The Little Frenchman fails in his attempt to understand the Other. Indeed, he never ceases misunderstanding his role in the Tupi scheme of things or the consequences of his actions. For example, he tries to transform his status as a prisoner to be consumed into that of an equal and friend by making gunpowder for Cunhambebe. The Little Frenchman’s success, however, entirely backfires; his usefulness in war against the Tupiniquin doesn’t win him freedom, rather, it ensures his demise as a warrior powerful enough to be worth eating.

Dos Santos’s film presents us with a noble Brazilian savage for whom cannibalism is a means of incorporating not simply the flesh of an enemy, but his power and strength.  At the same time, the film relativizes European imperialism, by portraying the Frenchman as someone who has to be transformed to be worth eating. Dos Santos sets the acquisitive individualism of Europeans, who would murder for a trifle, against an idealized Tupi village. Thus, when a French trader arrives among the Tupinambá and is asked by Cunhambebe if the insistent claims of the Little Frenchman’s are true (i.e., that he is Mair), he responds without hesitation—“he’s Portuguese, go ahead and eat him.” He explains, moments later, and quite matter-of-factly, that he condemned the Little Frenchman to death because he feared that to do otherwise would be to jeopardize his commercial relationship with Cunhambebe. Later, the Little Frenchman returns the favor, luring the Trader into the jungle to a chest of  (Portuguese) money hidden by Sebiopepe’s first husband. The Little Frenchman doesn’t hesitate when given the chance to fatally whack his compatriot over the head,[5] take the loot, and steal his canoe. Perhaps Villegaignon’s version of events at the beginning of the film wasn’t so wrong after all—the little Frenchman would indeed do anything to satisfy his desires.

Dos Santos’s idealization of the Tupi is clearly reminiscent of Montaigne’s essay “Of Cannibals.” According to Montaigne, the moral code of the Tupinambá is defined by two things: “valor against their enemies and love for their wives.”[6] We could perhaps add a third: communitas. Montaigne explains:

They have a way in their language of speaking of men as halves of one another…, they had noticed that there were among us men full and gorged with all sorts of good things, and that their other halves were beggars at their doors, emaciated with hunger and poverty; and they thought it strange that these needy halves could endure such an injustice, and did not take the others by the throat, or set fire to their houses.[7]

The Little Frenchman only seems to fully enter the Tupi world at the moment of his death when he tells his tormentors—as his “training” with Sebiopepe taught him to do—that his people will come to avenge him. However, the Frenchman’s notion of revenge is not at all like the Tupi’s; he isn’t interested in cannibalism, that is, in assimilating the other, rather his idea of revenge is total obliteration. War, for the European, as Montaigne tells us in “Of Cannibals” has nothing to do with valor or honor, but is entirely motivated by greed, lust and desire to conquer new lands. On the face of things, the Little Frenchman plays his role well. He becomes a kind of Tupi; at the same time, he is not just a man, he is a representative of an ocean of men who are about to flood into the new world. Men such as Mem de Sá, Governor General of Brazil, whose words accompany the film’s final sad frames, lingering statically on a desolate beach: “I fought on the sea” he said, “so that no Tupiniquin remained alive. Laid along the shore…the dead covered almost a league.”

The laughing and singing Tupi, gorged on French meat, thus also entirely misunderstand their encounter with the European. For the Tupi, cannibalism is part of an endless cycle of circulation where power is continuously regenerated and renewed. The Tupinambá are here faced with an antagonist like none they had ever faced before. They expect to be killed and devoured by their enemies; this is part and parcel of an on-going and productive relationship between self and other; Europeans, on the other hand, view the Tupi in entirely instrumental terms, that is, they consider the Tupinambá as nothing more than a means of satisfying their unrestrained erotic and material desires. The Little Frenchman’s final words are not only that he will be avenged by his people (following the Tupi formula), but that this vengeance will consist in total annihilation and genocide; after my friends come, he says, “none of you will be left upon this earth.”

Before bringing the movie to a close with Mem de Sá’s text, dos Santos shifts our view from the benign—and satisfied—countenance of Sebiopepe eating her Little Frenchman’s neck, to pan over the painted faces of the now well-fed “Tupi” villagers. The actors in the film are, of course, anything but Tupi. Dos Santos is not interested in historical accuracy, in this regard. This is neither a fault nor a problem; rather, it adds a farcical, almost Rabelaisian dimension to the film, serving to challenge binaries of self and other, savage and civilized; it is also a pointed reference to Oswald de Andrade’s 1928 Manifesto Antropófago.[8] The “movement of the cannibals,” which this work inaugurated, endorsed devouring European culture as a means of founding, growing, and enriching New World—and specifically, Brazilian—culture. “To Tupi or not to Tupi, that is the question,” says de Andrade. Dos Santos clearly opts for the affirmative. Yet he could have gone much farther in elaborating the European history of this cannibalistic ethic. Indeed, despite the ideological message of the film, the Tupinambá were not the only cannibals in the sixteenth-century. Thus well before de Andrade’s Manifesto, a contemporary of Villegaignon’s, Joachim Du Bellay, suggests that the French should themselves become cannibals: “by what means” he asks, “have the Romans been able…to enrich their language, to the point of making it more or less equal to the Greek?  By imitating the best Greek authors, transforming themselves into them, devouring them, and, having properly digested them, converting them into blood and nourishment.”[9] Cannibalism—absorbing and assimilating the other—is for Du Bellay only the first step in the process of invention. As Terrence Cave astutely observes, “the reader must devour his models, destroying their alien substance so that they may be regenerated in his living utterance as a product of his own essential nature.”[10] One here maintains, augments, valorizes, and extends the integrity of one’s own culture through acts of cannibalistic translation. And this is precisely what dos Santos (a Tupi with very European roots) does in his film—he cannibalizes European accounts of contact with the Tupinambá, devouring the words of Villegaignon, Léry, Staden, Thevet, Montaigne, Gandavo, Soares de Souza, Nóbrega, Anchieta, etc. (as well as the woodblock and engraved images by Theodor de Bry), digests them, and incorporates them into a new body and a new cinema, that is Brazil’s Cinema Nova, of which, of course, he was one of the “founders.”[11]

Any reconstruction of Tupi life, dos Santos’s included, depends on the words of those who destroyed them; indeed, the Tupi did not write and they left no trace of their culture beyond what was recorded (or saved, in the case of artifacts) by colonial powers. Dos Santos, in this sense, truly is a Tupi—a cannibal who devours European accounts to construct his film’s narrative of post-colonial revenge. Like the Little Frenchman eaten by the Tupinambá, the historical record is thus also cannibalized, devoured, incorporated, and in the end, transformed.


As a teaching tool dos Santo’s How Tasty Was My Little Frenchman is marvelously versatile. In my courses, I use it to counter the commonly held impression that history is simply a story written by the victors “to double the oppression of already vanquished groups by depriving them of their historical past and consequently of their identities as well.”[12] In this sense, the movie illustrates some of the ways history is made, recounted, incorporated and transformed by groups with very different interests, needs and agendas. In other words, the film provides a good introduction to the uses (and abuses) of history—i.e., history is not only an ideological weapon deployed by the powerful as a means of controlling the weak, but rather it is also a mode—and a means—of resistance. This can help students understand the diverse ways in which history is written and contested, pushing them to confront the range of ideological forces that are involved in the writing of history. The pseudo-journalistic style of the film can similarly be used to draw students into a discussion—and critique—of popularly held assumptions about the “objective” nature of news reporting. An interesting contrast, for example, can be drawn from a close reading of Villegaignon’s letter to Calvin (found in Jean de Léry’s History of a Voyage) and then a viewing of the film; I often supplement this with Patricia Seed’s article,  “Failing to Marvel: Atahualpa’s Encounter with the Word,” which questions the nature of historical evidence and truth by examining four different accounts—from very different perspectives—of the meeting between Pizarro and Atahualpa at Cajamarca.[13] I then juxtapose our reading of this text with film clips of (and newspaper articles about) Colin Powell’s famous speech before the United Nations on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. I also try to call attention to what the film ignores—which is to say, dos Santos, for one reason or another, entirely elides the religious context of France’s Brazilian venture in the sixteenth century. This is curious given the importance played by the controversy that unfolded in the early days of the colony over the status of the Eucharist.[14] For Protestants like Jean de Léry, Catholics were, quite simply, cannibals (because they ate the “real” body of Christ); while for Catholics, such as Villegaignon and Thevet, Protestants were nothing but heretics, savages, and barbarians. A good text to begin exploring some of these issues is Jean de Léry’s History of a Voyage to the Land of Brazil, otherwise called America (I use the preface, and chapters XI and XV). One can also trace these sectarian differences in Brazil back to France and show how they played out—so bloodily—during the wars of religion, in texts such as “Of Cannibals,” by Montaigne or Jodelle’s poem (quoted above), which employ the trope of the savage to criticize “civilized” European morality and culture.[15]

Nelson Pereira dos Santos, Director, How Tasty Was My Little Frenchman [Como Era Gostoso o Meu Francês] (1971), Color, 84 min., Brazil, Condor Filmes, Luiz Carlos Barreto Produçoes Cinematográficas, Regina Filmes.  

  1. The letter is reproduced “word for word” by Jean de Léry at the beginning of his History of a Voyage to the Land of Brazil, otherwise called America… (1578), trans. Janet Whatley (Berkeley, 1990), xlix-lii.
  2. See, for example, F. Lestringant, “Fictions de l’espace brésilien à la Renaissance: L’exemple de Guanabara”, in F. Lestringant and C. Jacob (eds.), Arts et légendes d’espaces (Paris, 1981), 205-256, and idem., Le Huguenot et le sauvage (Paris, 1990); and John McGrath, “Polemic and History in French Brazil, 1555-1560,” The Sixteenth Century Journal 27 (1996): 385-397.
  3. André Thevet, Les Singularités de la France antarctique, ed. F. Lestringant (Paris, 1983, first published in 1557).
  4. Depictions of Tupinambá daily life, their methods of warfare and their rituals hew relatively closely to Staden’s account, and those of other contemporary Europeans, most notably, Jean de Léry, Michel de Montaigne, and André Thevet. In addition to textual sources, the film utilizes woodcut and engraved depictions of the Tupinambá to choreograph and stage their rituals—whether rain dances, their manner of warfare or their cannibalistic feasts.  See the superb discussion of the film by Lúcia Nagib, Brazil on Screen (London and New York, 2007), 59-80; see also Claus Cluver, “Devouring the Other: Anthropophagy In Nelson Pereira Dos Santos’s Film Como Era Gostoso O Meu Francês,” Cadernos de Tradução 7 (2001): 31-51. See also the review by Nina Gerassi-Navarro, “Turning Cannibalism inside out: Re-Reading the Chronicles in ‘Como Era Gostoso O Meu Francês’,” Chasqui 34, Special Issue No. 2: Cinematic and Literary Representations of Spanish and Latin American Themes (2005): 11-23.
  5. Which is precisely what Cunhambebe will do to the Little Frenchman at the end of dos Santos’s story, but for very different reasons.
  6. Donald M. Frame (trans.), The Complete Essays of Montaigne (Stanford, 1992), 154.
  7. Ibid., 159.
  8. See Oswald de Andrade, “Cannibalist Manifesto,” translated by Leslie Bary, Latin American Literary Review, 19:38 (Jul. – Dec., 1991): 38-47.
  9. Joachim Du Bellay, La Deffence, et illustration de la langue Françoyse (Geneva, 2001), 91. I use Terrence Cave’s fine translation, The Cornucopian Text:  Problems of Writing in the French Renaissance (Oxford, 1979), 338.
  10. Cave, op. cit., 45-46.
  11. See, for example, Jerry W. Carlson, “The Best Cannibals Never Die: How Contemporary Brazilian Filmmakers Are Shaping a Revitalized National Cinema from Anything that They Can Eat from Global Culture,” Literature and Arts of the Americas, 35:64 (2002): 79-84, and L. Nagib (ed.), The New Brazilian Cinema (Oxford, London and New York, 2003).
  12. Hayden White, “The Historical Event” in Differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 19 (2008): 9-34, at 9.
  13. Patricia Seed, “Failing to Marvel: Atahualpa’s Encounter with the Word,” Latin American Research Review 26 (1991): 7-32.
  14. The cannibalistic imagery employed in these debates is striking and it is useful to ask students why they think dos Santos did not try to include any reference to such a rich source for exploring notions of cannibalism?  On Cannibalism, see for example, Donald W. Forsyth, “The Beginnings of Brazilian Anthropology: Jesuits and Tupinamba Cannibalism” Journal of Anthropological Research 39 (1983): 147-178. Maggie Kilgour, From Communion to Cannibalism: An Anatomy of Metaphors of Incorporation (Princeton, 1990); Frank Lestringant, Trans. R. Morris, Cannibals: The Discovery and Representation of the Cannibal from Columbus to Jules Verne (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1997); C. Avramescu, trans. A. I. Blyth, An Intellectual History of Cannibalism (Princeton, 2009).
  15. To illustrate some of the many ways that notions of civilized and savage are intertwined I sometimes assign my essay, “Civilizing the Savage and Making a King: the Royal Entry Festival of Henri II (Rouen, 1550),” Sixteenth Century Journal 29 (1998): 467-496; this train of thought also serves as a bridge into lectures on the notion of the noble savage and such texts as Rousseau’s Discourse on the Origin and Basis of Inequality Among Men, or Diderot’s Supplément au voyage de Bougainville.


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