I wouldn’t say films about cannibalism are a genre unto themselves, although the range of treatments certainly makes it a rich and pervasive theme. Films that portray the consumption of human flesh tend to fall into several obvious narrative niches: horror, science fiction, or comedy, and sometimes the only frame able to contain such stories is a fluid, hybridized one. The trope was first normalized by George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead in 1968, who perhaps inadvertently gave birth to the “zombie” movie craze, despite his very clear labeling of the flesh-eaters as “ghouls.” We’ve seen campy comedy cannibalism (1982s Eating Raoul, 1989s Parents, and the recent TV series The Santa Clarita Diet), artful pathology cannibalism (1991s The Silence of the Lambs, 1989s The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover, 2001s Trouble Every Day, 2013s We Are What We Are), and futuristic apocalyptic survival cannabalism (1973s made-for-TV Soylent Green, 1994s Delicatessen, 2009s The Road).
The debut French-Belgian film Raw from director Julia Ducorneau is a fresh twist on the cannibalism trope, with nothing campy, dystopic or supernatural happening. If it could be assigned any film genre, it would be coming of age, and its metaphorical visuals invite a reading about the horrors of late adolescence and sexual awakening. The film opens with Justine (Garrance Marillier) having lunch with her parents before beginning her studies at veterinary college. The server at the cafeteria where they’re eating mistakenly puts meat in her potatoes; Justine gags and her mother gets angry. They’re all strict vegetarians, a fact that may serve as a metaphor among many in this layered film. Justine moves into her dorm and meets her roommate, Adrien (Rabah Nait Oufella), a gay man. That first night, older students rush into first-year students’ rooms, throw their mattresses out the windows, and force them to attend a raucous rave party. Justine is exhausted and tries to avoid being social. She runs into her sister Alexia (Ella Rumpf), a senior at the school; Alexia is far more outgoing and sexually mature than her younger sister.
The first year students are immediately forced into various hazing activities and rules, including one ritual where freshmen are forced to eat rabbit kidneys. Justine wants to refuse but her sister forces her, reminding her she needs to fit in. The first years are also doused in animal blood (an homage to another horrific coming of age narrative: 1976s Carrie), and generally made miserable. Justine throws herself into her studies, but Adrien and Alexia both encourage her to get out more. Alexia becomes an intimate friend, protecting Justine from bullying upperclassmen, and Alexia encourages Justine to date boys.
The film marks various events as milestones in Justine’s journey to womanhood, but alongside her sexual awakening is the growing realization that she has a craving for human flesh. At first, this craving fills her with disgust and befuddlement. But she gets used to it, and also gamely takes part in dissection and other veterinary activities while her classmates look on in horror. Early on, Alexia tries to help Justine both cover up her secret and to coach her in managing it. The loss of Justine’s virginity somehow parallels her immersion into her cannibalistic tendencies; blood is a constant signifier. This is where some astute viewers might wonder if all of this is somehow a symbolic, archetypal exploration. Justine’s lusty craving for blood is portrayed as sexual empowerment, akin to being responsible for her own orgasm. Certainly this has intriguing feminist overtones. Could it be that Raw is an allegory (albeit a bloody one), and not a true horror film? But the film’s graphic portrayal of cannibalism (which reportedly had some audience members at the Toronto Film Festival seeking medical attention for fainting) seems to belie a symbolic reading. And if sex, forming identity, fraternizing with peers and breaking away from family are all key elements of the coming of age narrative, then cannibalism, being the ultimate taboo, is perhaps no more outrageous an expression of social maturity than, say, shooting heroin. Both urges are often portrayed as helpless addictions, and destabilizing forces in otherwise civil society.
There is a scene towards the end of the film where students appear on a rooftop, wrapped in blankets after a night of disturbed sleep, their faces showing the ravages of constant partying, looking over the horizon where the sun is rising. It’s an epiphanic moment, but it’s not at all clear what they have realized. It’s tempting to see the film’s unusual realism as somehow musing on a not too distant future. Raw’s exploration of cannibalism within a university setting, the pitting of vegetarianism against the utilitarian practices of veterinary medicine, the parallel imagery of sex and flesh consumption: these all combine to imbue this hard to watch film with thoughtful depth, challenging viewers to see beneath the surface and consider cannibalism’s millennial connotations. These ideas are ultimately far more memorable and haunting that any gruesome scenes of gore. But the gore is considerable, and may be hard to watch for some, because it doesn’t occur within a recognizable horror context. This is horror of an intimate human variety; thoughtful and layered and very, very disturbing.