After what seems like a protracted reign of zombies in pop culture, we’re finding ourselves in different times, times that call for a new ubiquitous boogeyman metaphor. The problem is, none of our zombie anxieties have gone away, they’ve just intensified. Fears about herd mentality and your friends and neighbors losing their souls continue to feel as relevant as ever.
Now cannibalism, one of humanity’s greatest taboos, is having its moment in the spotlight. The time seems right: We seem to be bulldozing past all other niceties these days, why hold back from eating each other? There was TV version of Hannibal, which turned human flesh into baroque spectacle. The new Netflix comedy The Santa Clarita Diet follows a suburban woman who’s ostensibly a zombie, but she’s fully conscious when she eats people; for all practical purposes, she’s a cannibal. And now there’s Raw, a French-Belgian horror film that combines flesh eating with the horrors of college hazing to spin a loopy parable of abstinence and indulgence, bingeing and purging.
Justine (Garance Marillier) is the teenage daughter of a family of vegetarian veterinarians, who is sent off to her first year at a vet school that may or may not exist in the same cinematic reality as The Warriors or Children of Men. It’s a sallow, foreboding cinder-block compound where coeds spend their days cutting open cow stomachs and their nights flirting with alcohol poisoning. Justine is lucky enough to have her older sister Alexia (Ella Rumpf) around to guide her through the trials of the freshman hazing ritual, but the two have trouble seeing eye to eye. That is, until Justine is forced to eat a raw rabbit kidney and contracts some kind of illness that makes her ravenous for meat — especially raw meat. When sneaking bites of truck-stop shawarma sandwiches and raw chicken breast no longer suffices, a freak accident reveals that what she really craves is human flesh. And the more she tries to deny her hunger, she only becomes more ravenous.
Writer and director Julia Ducournau could have easily written Raw as a vampire story; its themes of sex and familial secrets slots right into that folklore. But she’s clearly preoccupied with flesh and bone, the biological act of eating and chewing and swallowing, and how that basic human need has become a fraught process for some young women. When Justine eats, it’s with the same lust and shame and ecstasy as when she inexpertly throws herself at her male classmates. Teaching, protecting, and enabling Justine is what eventually bonds Alexia to her younger sister (not to mention a horrific, possibly gratuitous bikini-waxing scene far more awful than the blood and guts.) It’s also what eventually turns the two against each other.
Raw made a bit of a stir at the Toronto Film Festival, where it was reported that at least one viewer had to be taken out of the theater by paramedics after a carnage-induced fainting spell. This feels overblown to me. Raw is certainly nasty, but its gore is strategic and sparse. It is, however, a very stressful film to watch from beginning to end, even before the real feasting gets underway. Justine’s surroundings at the veterinary school are so unpleasant and bleak, the imagery of the day-to-day business of birthing cows and dissecting dogs so sinister and clinical, her peers’ behavior so nonstop aggressive, that by the time she takes a bite of her first human finger, it just feels like another another item on a long bullet list of unpleasantries. This feels intentional on the part of Ducournau — Justine is sympathetically aberrant, and the world in which she realizes who she is matters just as much as who she is. But it also makes for an uneven, meandering viewing experience that loses momentum just quickly as it gains it.
Still though, Raw’s exploration of the onscreen potential of cannibalism feels fresh. It’s not a brutal practice here so much as a pathetic and sad one, something that inspires as much loathing in the devourer as the devoured. Justine doesn’t have the privilege of being undead when she sinks her teeth into another human; she’s watching her own descent into animalism just as helplessly as we are.