Would You Like Fava Beans With That? Gaspard Ulliel plays a young Mr. Lecter in Hannibal Rising.

Turns out Hannibal Lecter wasn’t always a psychopathic aesthete sporting tailored jumpsuits, eating prison guards, and humiliating the occasional FBI agent. Hannibal Rising, novelist-turned-­screenwriter Thomas Harris’ fifth peek into the good doctor’s cookbook, reminds us that people who eat people are people, too. Building his prequel around alleged incidents of cannibalism on World War II’s Eastern front, Harris attempts a classy fusion of noirish thriller and Spielbergian epic; Lecter’s unusual appetite was sparked in war-torn Lithuania, where freezing looters sometimes devoured future psychiatrists’ beloved younger sisters to tide them over until Russian liberation. The film’s thesis: “You ate my sister!” equals “I’m traumatized!” equals “I’m a wacky serial killer, and now I’m going to eat you!” Gaspard Ulliel, reimagining the role Anthony Hopkins was born to play while hunting down flesh-eating bad guys and, um, eating their flesh to exact vengeance, does his best to sell this psychological hooey. The young French actor gets little help from a script that can’t decide if it wants its audience to understand the horror of war, empathize with a traumatized teen, or marvel at the numerous disgusting ways that humans can be murdered, dismembered, and consumed. Harris’ decision to concoct a romance between Lecter and his uncle’s widow, Lady Murasaki (Gong Li), is particularly ham-fisted; when Lecter finds refuge with Murasaki in France, she becomes her semi-nephew’s sensei/lover, leading him through insufferable training sequences (where, for foreshadowing’s sake, her pupil tries on a spooky samurai mask) and undermining a fundamental part of Lecter’s creepiness—his asexuality. Ulliel, aping Hopkins’ vacant stares, becomes the, ahem, “fuckboy” of his beautiful ex-aunt, who inexplicably accepts him as replacement for her dead husband. It’s more likely that Captain Quint would pucker up and smooch Jaws, and Harris’ improbable dialogue, weighed down by Li’s wooden performance, stymies any attempt to transform Hannibal into Romeo. Hannibal Rising could have taken a chance and filtered The Texas Chainsaw Massacre through Empire of the Sun; instead, it founders in thriller conventions, wasting Dominic West as a police detective hot on Hannibal’s trail. The detective—who also lost his family in the war yet found a way to persevere sans human flesh—is Hannibal Rising’s moral center and, appropriately, plays no part in the film’s gory twist. This meager entry in Harris’ pentalogy even insults serial killers: After all, Ted Bundy and Charles Manson’s noxious crimes were product of a lifetime of complex psychosexual trauma, not revenge.