[Note: This post contains minor spoilers.]
There’s always a risk of narrow-mindedness when one examines a horror film (or any film, for that matter) through the lens of metaphor. One needn’t look any farther than the documentary Room 327—which profiles various interpretations of The Shining, some of them supported solely by extratextual conspiracy theories—to appreciate how far into error one can stray when a specific reading of a film becomes the only permissible reading. However, sometimes a particular allegorical approach to a film to so glaringly obvious, that to pretend as if it isn’t relevant would border on critical malpractice.
Such is the case with French director Julia Ducournau’s staggeringly confident debut feature, Raw, a horror picture about cannibalism that is also quite plainly about transgressive sexual desires in young women. It isn't even necessary to see the film to arrive at this conclusion. It can be deduced from a nickel summary of the plot: A young woman who has been a lifelong vegetarian heads off to college, where she discovers a craving for raw meat that eventually escalates into a compulsive hunger for human flesh. What do you need, a road map? What’s remarkable about Raw, however, is that while its clearest figurative reading pulses just beneath the surface, the film isn’t the least bit simple-minded or condescending. On the contrary, Docournau has crafted a work of bracing intelligence. Raw is at once thematically sophisticated, aesthetically arresting, and straight-up terrifying—albeit frequently in unexpected ways.
The film’s unfortunate anthropophagus is Justine (Garance Marillier) the younger daughter in a family of Belgian veterinary doctors. Like her father (Laurant Lucas), mother (Joana Preiss), and older sister Alexia (Ella Rumpf), Justine is a strict vegetarian. She is also following in her clan's professional footsteps: When the film opens, she is about to begin her first year at the prestigious veterinary school that her parents once attended, the very same school in which Big Sis is currently enrolled. The physical environment of this institution is a compelling character in its own right. It features the kind of severe, monolithic concrete architecture that seems to actively convey miserable inhospitality. The campus certainly doesn’t suggest an esteemed Belgian college—more like an abandoned Cold War military academy in some lesser Soviet republic. Granted, many of the film’s locales are visually striking, but none of them could be described as appealing or handsome. The school is so oppressive in its charmless functionality, it’s a miracle that the students are able to learn anything at all.
The dissonance created by these grim surroundings is only exacerbated by the school’s fill-tilt party and hazing culture, which would give even the rowdiest state university frat house in America a run for its money. The intensity, cruelty, and sexual undercurrent of the abuse heaped on first-year “rookies” keeps Justine off-balance from the first night in her awkwardly coed dorm room. (“I asked for a girl,” she protests to her new roommate Adrien [Rabah Nait Oufella], who pleasantly observes that assigning her a gay man was likely someone’s clumsy notion of a joke.) During the wee hours, the rookies are menacingly herded out into the hall in their underwear while their rooms are vandalized and their mattresses are tossed into the courtyard. Things only get more questionable from there: Carrie-style deluges of fake blood; absurd, rigidly enforced speech and dress codes; humiliating sexual games; and compulsory attendance at numerous late-night parties, studies be damned. And that’s just over the course of Raw’s brief time frame, which spans the seven days of the school’s opening “Rush Week”.
More distressing to Justine than these harsh rites of passage, however, is the standoffishness exhibited by her sister. Alexia doesn’t display much interest in socializing with her younger sibling, and in her role as an upperclassman “elder,” she evidently must refrain from showing Justine favoritism where the school’s hazing traditions are concerned. It's a moot matter anyway: Alexia’s word is not sufficient to excuse Justine from one of the more revolting rituals, in which the younger sister is obliged to eat a hunk of raw rabbit kidney. Although Alexia pops a bit of the offal into her mouth to demonstrate that a vegetarian can make exceptions, the meat instantly provokes a retching fit in Justine, and later it seems to trigger a severe allergic reaction. A scarlet, scabrous rash that resembles the world’s worst case of psoriasis breaks out all over her body. Suddenly she finds that she is always hungry, no matter how much she eats. Only raw chicken breasts, wolfed down in guilt-ridden midnight visits to her roommate’s fridge, seem to satiate her appetite, however briefly.
The strangeness of Justine’s symptoms and her accompanying discombobulation intensify from there. However, to detail Raw’s plot much further would undermine the dizzying sensation of revolted, gaping disbelief that the film is so adept at evoking. Suffice to say that Justine’s cravings eventually escalate to the point that only human flesh will satisfy her. Once that cannibalistic Rubicon is crossed—in one of the film’s most gleefully appalling and seat-squirming scenes—things go from bad to worse to nightmarish quite rapidly. It would go too far to assert that Raw has a big plot twist, per se, but the story does take some unusual, rancorous turns. These are rather cunningly hinted at through low-key clues, some little more than seemingly prosaic touches in the film’s sets, props, and costumes.
Perhaps the most unexpected thing about Raw is that it isn't a satire of vegetarianism. In fact, it never really wades into the more contentious aspects of food politics or animal rights in any meaningful way. Viewers who are expecting a film that ridicules the herbivorous lifestyle will have to look elsewhere; no self-righteous vegan straw men get pummeled here. The closest the film comes to this is a cafeteria scene in which Justine rather clumsily defends her views on primate sentience to her fellow underclassman. However, the principal takeaway from this exchange is that the other students are ill-informed about rudimentary medical and zoological facts—which is a bit worrisome given that they are supposedly Europe's future veterinary elite.
Raw is quite decisively a film about sex, rather than food, although the two topics are inextricably intertwined at a metaphorical level in the film’s lexicon. It’s certainly no coincidence that Justine’s emergent cannibalistic compulsions are accompanied by an apparently uncharacteristic turn towards sexual self-confidence and heated erotic experimentation. In contrast, when she first arrives at the school, Justine cuts a figure that is almost asexual. Boyish in face and frame, she navigates her oversexed new surroundings with the cringing unease of an embarrassed preteen or sheltered Mormon adolescent. Obliged to wear a skimpy dress and heels as a part of her hazing, she looks and moves as awkwardly as a little girl playing dress-up. It’s not surprising in the least when she confesses to a nurse that she is still a virgin.
However, Justine’s eventual embrace of a human-based diet is tangled up with an overdue sexual awakening. Once she's made her carnivorous turn, she dances indulgently in front of a mirror to the post-feminist horndog rapping in Orties’ “Bitchier Than Any Bitches”, leaving lipstick kisses on her reflection. During a hazing trial, she is doused in azure paint and shoved half-naked into a bathroom with a male rookie covered in yellow, and the pair are ordered to stay in until “you’re both green." It doesn't end well: Justine emerges a short time later with a bloody chunk of the poor sap’s lip between her teeth. Eventually, she betrays an unabashed, ferocious lust for her half-aroused and half-disgusted roommate, culminating in a predictably brutal sex scene where—in a whirl of ravening confusion—Justine actually starts to devour her own forearm.
Justine’s increasingly reckless and bizarre behavior isolates her from the rest of the student population. Their stance towards her evolves from amused to contemptuous seemingly overnight after a particularly demeaning incident. (Owing to an alcohol-fueled blackout, Justine doesn’t even remember this night of shame, but YouTube never forgets.) On top of everything else, a succession of mishaps and betrayals sends her relationship with her sister into a downward spiral of animosity, robbing Justine of the only remaining ally who might have been understanding rather than disgusted with her new habits. Raw’s final, blood-slicked destination carries an otherwise uncommon tinge of narrative conservatism. However, it's also presented with such a potent aura of monstrous tragedy that one can forgive a late-game lurch into crime drama cliché.
Horror cinema has produced a handful of audacious and thematically thorny features about cannibalism in recent years—We Are What We Are, The Neon Demon, and the underrated The Green Inferno among them—but the anthropophagus has been a genre fixture since roughly the mid-1960s, when lurid cheapies like Two Thousand Maniacs! and Blood Feast began to appear. Indeed, cannibalism has been front and center in stone-cold genre masterpieces such as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Silence of the Lambs, as well as marvelous cult curios like The Hills Have Eyes, Motel Hell, C.H.U.D., Parents, and of course the Italian cannibal features of the 70s and 80s, including the notorious Cannibal Holocaust.
In most cases, however, anthropophagia serves primarily as a source of lethal peril for the protagonist. Who wants to wind up someone else’s dinner, after all? (Stephen King’s 1982 short story “Survivor Type” is perhaps the only work of fiction to cleverly and remorselessly turn the scenario in on itself, placing the the hero in a situation where he must consume his own flesh to subsist.) Alternately, cannibalism is sometimes presented as a glorified character trait, a shorthand means to establish the abominable evil of the villain or monsters. What distinguishes Raw’s treatment of such culinary transgression from that of most films is its forthright engagement with the cannibalistic urge as both a disturbing logistical problem and a heady metaphor. Only Ravenous and Eating Raoul come close to approximating Raw’s distinct approach, although in those films, cannibalism is still presented as a means to an end. Furthermore, their horror is leavened (Ravenous) or completely replaced (Raoul) with black humor. Raw’s angle is rather more pragmatic and straight-faced. It presents cannibalism as an idiosyncratic biological craving that can be accommodated with some creative and disciplined problem-solving.
On balance, however, Raw is skewed a bit more towards metaphorical matters rather than the concrete details of how exactly a cannibal might go about satisfying their perverse hunger. In part, this is attributable to the faintly surrealistic atmosphere that pervades the film, a chilly Euro-artiness that Ducournau implements with a droll touch and a discerning eye for arresting visuals. The film’s marginal preference for metaphor over realism is perhaps advantageous, given some nagging plot implausibilities. (Justine’s desires prove quite difficult to conceal, but covering up her crimes seems curiously hassle-free. Maybe this is a subtle statement on the normalization of campus sexual assault?) At any rate, it’s best not to dwell on the unrealistic elements in a film where a finger is chopped off as easily as the tip of a boiled carrot. While it evinces a horror fangirl’s ghoulish glee at spurting blood and savaged tissue, Raw ultimately prefers the terrors found in the psychological and social dynamics of transgressive tastes. The film is written in gristle, but its vocabulary is one of emotions: fear, desire, scorn, and guilt.
Raw presents an intense, empathetic depiction of the way compulsive behavior can direct and deform a life, in a manner that not incidentally recalls Steve McQueen’s grim portrait of sexual addiction, Shame. It speaks to Ducournau’s storytelling talents that no matter how many mistakes and depravities Justine commits, the viewer is perpetually terrified on her behalf, lest her deplorable cravings be discovered. That sort of sly sympathy redirection requires a steady hand, but the film’s success in this respect is also due to its setting. By surrounding her cannibal protagonist with narcissistic twits, conformist cowards, and misogynist jerks, Ducournau stacks the deck in Justine’s favor. Critically, she does so while resisting the urge to turn her heroine into an inhumanly alluring fiend in the mold of Hannibal Lecter. It’s ultimately pity that motivates the viewer’s affinity for Justine. She has spent her young life flattening and neglecting her wants in order to meet the expectations of others—sometimes willingly, often reluctantly. There’s a twinge of gratification in seeing her enthusiastically indulge appetites that are wholly her own, regardless of how monstrous they might be.
This points to the film’s feminist bent, and in particular to its bitter exasperation with the treatment of women who exhibit sexual desires and behavior that do not fit socially acceptable norms. Apart from its dim view of slut shaming and other overt manifestations of misogyny, Raw is a critique of the way that the fine contours of women’s libidos are policed for deviancy. Granted, the broad terrain of socially permissible lusts is constantly in motion—lesbianism being nominally tolerated in a contemporary European secular society like Belgium, for example. However, just as human desire seems dizzyingly multifarious, divisible into sub-sub-urges that continually fragment and coalesce, so too does disapproval seem to mutate into limitless forms. If one were a cynic, one might surmise that patriarchal societies will always find a way to render value judgments on female sexuality, no matter how superficially permissive and liberalized the dominant culture might become. If one were a cynic.
Raw apprehends the perilous terrain that young women in particular traverse as they become sexually self-aware. That topography is strewn with "shall" and "shall not" landmines placed by reactionary and radical forces alike. A little deviation in the name of being adventurous in the bedroom is acceptable, as long as it's not, you know, too much deviation. The dark elegance of the film’s central metaphor lies in its universality. In Raw, cannibalism stands in for almost any non-conventional sexual state, mode, relationship, taste, or kink that might unnerve the straights (or the queers). It’s all of them, all at once: bisexuality; asexuality; non-monogamy; exhibitionism/voyeurism; BDSM; or any more outlandish proclivity, fetish, or paraphilia one might dare to contemplate. (Furries? Tickling? Cake sploshing? You bet!)
Yet Raw’s cannibalism remains stubbornly resistant to identification with any specific sexual identity or behavior, in part because its implicit non-consensual violence is at odds with the primacy of consent in the secular liberal sexual ethic. It’s not that cannibalism is like bondage, or that bondage is like cannibalism. Rather, society reacts to a woman who enjoys bondage—when practiced outside tame, narrow permissions—in the same way that it would react to a woman who enjoys eating people. The trickiness of the symbolism doesn’t seem to be lost on Ducournau, as the aforementioned discussion about primate sentience reveals. When Judith asserts that sexually assaulting an ape would be as morally monstrous as a similar crime perpetrated against a human, another student indignantly asks if she is seriously comparing a raped woman to a monkey. One can easily envision a comparable outraged accusation being directed at the filmmaker at a Raw screening Q&A.
Still, it’s challenging to misconstrue Ducournau’s meaning when Raw is so densely layered with imagery that resonates with Justine’s plight and the theme of erotic transgression. Among the film’s recurring motifs are animals that are helpless and confined, their diseases and defects displayed for the students’ examination. Justine is similarly on display, hyper-conscious of the judgment of her classmates with respect to her sexual attractiveness, experience, and overall “normalcy". As Justine looks on in wide-eyed fascination, the film attentively documents the elaborate preparations necessary to sedate and hoist a horse for a surgical procedure—a process that’s presented with such fetishism for the myriad tubes, straps, buckles, and chains involved that it’s difficult not to be put in mind of BDSM play. Her repeated encounters with single-car crashes on the road to the school suggest the deviancy portrayed in David Cronenberg’s Crash, in which the characters eroticize the twisted metal and mangled limbs that result from car accidents. And then there’s the film’s most indelible shot: Alexia standing with her arm elbow-deep in cow’s rectum. It's a sight so unexpected that it brings Justine to an embarrassed, screeching halt, as though she thoughtlessly neglected to knock before barging through a shut bedroom door. As George Carlin once quipped, “You don’t have to be Fellini to figure that out."