“What is most monstrous in this film is heteronormativity… This whole hazing business… it’s rape culture writ large and is truly monstrous.” Film commentator Cerise Howard
The so-called ‘male gaze’ has dominated horror cinema, creating a screen culture of scream queens, dispensable sluts, chaste virgins and monstrous vagina dentatas. As maligned as the word ‘horror’ may be, more and more female filmmakers are being attracted to the creativity of expression that the horror genre propagates, French writer-director Julia Ducournau’s debut cannibal feature, Raw, being one such germane example.
But does a woman filmmaker’s gaze differ to men, and are we seeing a new form of horror emerging through the eyes of women?
This was the lynchpin question an all-female panel of film critics, academics and horror fans considered under the theme ‘Horror in the Eyes of Women’ at an advanced screening of Raw in Melbourne, Australia, on Wednesday 19th April.
With myself as host, the panel of comedian, screenwriter and journalist Clem Bastow; film critic/journalist Philippa Hawker, Artistic Director of the Czech and Slovak Film Festival of Australia and film commentator Cerise Howard; and The Monstrous-Feminine author herself, Professor Barbara Creed pondered what could be a new age of feminism expressed through the unique lens of female filmmakers.
“Do women find other women less horrifying?” surmised Cerise Howard. “That is definitely a thing.”
Call Raw a ‘feminist film’ – or even a ‘horror film’ – and Julia Ducournau will refute such a label. Her argument is that Raw is a coming-of-age film, and therefore broadly accessible for a diverse audience, which is a valid argument but also one that unfortunately posits both ‘feminism’ and ‘horror’ as such loaded terms they now come at the exclusion of certain viewers.
“I’ve actually seen Julia Ducournau say both that it is – and it is not – a feminist film,” remarked Clem Bastow. “As far as feminism is a dirty word, I don’t know whether it is that simple or whether feminism has become that complex. Is there a monolithic feminism? No. I guess there is in the minds of the media but, yeah, this is an interesting film to view through a feminist lens. It has some pretty interesting ideas about heteronormativity… and bikini waxing.”
Interestingly, heteronomativity as the dominant sexual and social culture featured heavily in this panel discussion about Raw, as did the observation that the central monster(s) was hardly monstrous or even frightening.
“What’s most monstrous in this film is heteronormativity,” remarked Howard. “The veterinary science students are appalling. This whole hazing business – get a boy, get a girl, put them in a room together and don’t let them out until they’ve merged in some way – it’s rape culture writ large and is truly monstrous.”
“What is of most interest to me is there is a real queerness to the film, to the point of incestuous desire and ritualised bizarre incest in the family in that extremely peculiar coda,” she continued. “I don’t know what to say about that exactly, except I didn’t see that coming. So I think the most monstrous thing in this film is the heteros.”
Accordingly, Cerise Howard received a round of applause from the audience for her observation.
“If anything, female monsters are becoming a bit tamer,” confessed Barbara Creed. “I think they were much more terrifying in the 1970s and ‘80s. Films like The Exorcist (1973) and also Carrie (1976) – a sympathetic but terrifying character – and the mother alien in Alien (1979) is one of my favourite female monsters. So I think the heroine here [in Raw], Justine*, is not terrifying or monstrous at all, really.”
“I suppose this is because it’s more of a coming-of-age film,” surmised Creed. “In many of the cannibal films I’ve watched, the cannibals just ‘are’ – they don’t show us the process of becoming a cannibal. So, with Justine, we go along on her journey with her, we identify and sympathise in a number of scenes.”
Philippa Hawker believed that Julia Ducournau invites us to feel sympathetic towards the character of Justine, and to see her as someone who is struggling to discover who she is in a world that is pretty monstrous: “That institution in which she operates in, and the hazing that’s supposed to be part of the world that she’s studying in, and her classic example of bourgeois parents that haven’t really told her what’s in stall for her… I think she’s a sympathetic character in a very strange world.”
Barbara Creed agreed with Hawker’s assessment, adding that she personally sees the film as “quite misanthropic”.
“I didn’t find any of the characters particularly likeable at all. It was interesting that it was set in a veterinarian college and – for me – the most sympathetic of the characters were the animals themselves. The new group that were subjected to hazing rituals were victimised or terrorised to a large extent but the scenes where the animals were put under anaesthetic and operated on – and, no doubt towards the end, discarded – were moving. A lot more could have been made between the differences, or not, of eating human flesh and eating animal flesh. That was the question that interested me most by the end of the film.”
Curiously, an audience member put up their hand to comment on the inclusion of animal cruelty in Raw, an observation that confirms the power of suggestion in the film, as no animal cruelty was even featured, fictional or otherwise.
Julia Ducournau talks about Raw continuously in its context as a coming-of-age film. She says that it is the story of making choices – moral choices – of choosing the type of adult we will become, and learning to live with the dark, more animalistic behaviour that is in all of us, whether we accept it or not.
Appropriately, a number of audience attendees at this panel screening chose to wear animal print clothing, yours truly included, openly flaunting their inner beast. On-screen, the animal behaviour comes expressed viscerally through a number of uncomfortable acts/rites-of-passage, some being the regurgitation of hair, the biting off of lip flesh, a girls’ own pissing contest, the force-feeding of Raw rabbit kidneys and a somewhat uncomfortable hair removal scene.
“I read an interview with [Julia Ducournau] where she said she included the bikini wax scene because she felt that everyone could appreciate that that would be awful,” said Clem Bastow. “She saw that as being the universally horrific instance in the film – and not eating your sister’s finger!”
“The hairiest thing in the film is the dog, and that has to be removed,” added Howard. “But not before there is a suggestion of actual bestial lust on behalf of the dog when the poor girl is lying there prone just before the bikini wax.”
Central to the entire narrative of Raw is the relationship between two sisters, both of whom make very different choices concerning their inner darkness.
“How do they [the sisters] handle their cannibalism?” hypothesised Hawker. “I think it’s cinematic shorthand for a really intense relationship, like no other. Obviously, the cannibalism is being passed down through the female line but the sisters have different attitudes towards it. Alex is much more motivated by hate. Justine is trying to be good… to be a good cannibal.”
“Cannibalism is sometimes also a metaphor for consumption – a society that eats up its people, quite literally,” she continued. “In a film like Raw or Claire Denis’ Trouble Every Day (2001), it’s not so obvious as to why such things exist. It’s mysterious. I think that’s one of the elements that makes these two French cannibal films by women very different films.”
Barbara Creed admitted to an academic interest in the subject of cannibalism because it is a major taboo “by which we dRaw a line in the sand, so to speak, to separate each other out”. “
A human is not meant to eat its own kind,” said Creed. “Although people are always fascinated with those stories where this actually happens. When you think of the infant in utero, the infant lives on the nutrients that come down the umbilical chord and some of the blood even goes back into the mother. It’s a kind of cannibalistic scenario – not quite, but almost.”
“Cannibalism actually refers to animals that eat their own kind, and there are a few,” she continued. “As you all probably know, the Black Widow spider eats the male during sex but also polar bears have been seen recently to eat other polar bears, which may be due to global warming and the lack of food. Wasps have nasty cannibalistic habits too. I remember, in the ‘70s and ‘80s, feminists were interested in eating their own placenta after birth, which is a kind of auto-cannibalism.”
“In the real world, the classical cannibal tends to be male but, in fairytales and in film, the cannibal is often more terrifying and female. It’s a much more horrific sight. You don’t usually get images of men like that.”
When questioned as to why females have traditionally figured as more horrifying monstrosities than males, Creed explained, “I think it’s got to do with popular, probably sexist, myths about the mother. Mrs Bates in Psycho (1960)… what was she doing? Devouring her son, suffocating him. The suffocating, devouring mother who usually consumes her son in an Oedipal relationship.”
“[Raw] is interesting in that it breaks with the pattern we find in films like Psycho. Here, we have sisters, which is an unusual combination in horror. In many horror films, woman become monstrous, and a lot of it is to do with changes around their reproductive cycles. Carrie begins to menstruate, Regan begins to menstruate and so forth. But here, the rite of passage is to do with eating meat because her desire for meat is triggered by having to eat animal – non-human flesh – so there is a connection between the two.”
“I think the film, whether the director intended it or not, is suggesting there is such a fine line between human and non-human, that cannibalism is perhaps a taboo that has had its day and we can now look at it for what it is, because we, as human animals, eat the flesh of other creatures – not cannibalism but so close – and so close in this film that triggers her appetite to become a cannibal. So watch out…”
Emma Westwood was host of the Raw advanced screening and panel discussion that took place on Wednesday 19th April 2017 at Cinema Nova in Melbourne, Australia. https://www.monsterfest.com.au/events/Raw-cinemanova/
* The decision to call this character ‘Justine’ was deliberate, with parallels to another famous (and French) Justine penned by the Marquis de Sade. Actor Garance Marillier also played a different character called ‘Justine’ for Julia Ducournau in the 2011 short, Junior.