Julia Ducournau’s French cannibalistic coming of age film Raw depicts feminine pleasure and power through body horror. The film played at festivals and in France, with a limited US release. Viewers had visceral reactions to the screenings, with some even walking out or passing out due to the graphic cannibalism. Even so, Ducournau’s film can be incredibly relatable and empowering for young women.
The film follows Justine (Garance Marillier), a lifetime vegetarian, as she begins veterinary school. During a hazing ritual, Justine is forced to consume raw meat. This awakens her hunger for flesh, which drives her decisions through the rest of the film. Justine is not alone in her desire to eat others — her sister and mother have the same tendencies. Justine’s budding cannibalism aligns with her sexual coming of age. For her, eating people is deeply connected with sexual intimacy. When Justine has sex with her roommate, she grunts in an animalistic manner and bites her own arm to prevent herself from eating him. Blood pours down her arm and onto the bed as she makes eye contact with the camera, sending the message that she knows what’s happening to her: she is insatiable and human flesh is the only thing that satisfies her. To portray this in a relatable way, Marillier and Ducournau worked closely to make sure Justine was likeable and in control; even when eating other people. Throughout the film, it is clear that Justine knows cannibalism is wrong but it is what her body wants. When she tries to prevent harming others by eating raw chicken or her own hair, she fails. Instead, she lets herself give in during sexual experiences that turn into her feeding time.
Unlike many coming of age stories, Justine is in control of her sexuality. She seeks out sexual partners when she wants to and all the sex scenes are filmed from her point of view rather than an oversexualizing male point of view. This directly addresses the issue of the male gaze as described by feminist film theorist Laura Mulvey. She writes that “in a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female. The determining male gaze projects its fantasy onto the female figure, which is styled accordingly” (Mulvey). By subverting the male gaze, Raw avoids being an exploitation film and instead is a radical coming of age horror film.
Raw is not an easy watch. As mentioned earlier, some had to leave screenings of the film because it is so effective. Ducournau’s camera does not turn away when Justine messily, violently eats flesh. There are no jump scares. The camera lingers. We see Justine realizing what she has done, deciding to dive back in, and we make eye contact with her as she eats, blood escaping her mouth and coating her fingers. Justine is notably human through all of this. She is not supernatural. She is not a monster. She is a human giving in to her desire.
Cannibalism acts as a metaphor for claiming power in sexual and non-sexual senses. Because Justine’s sexual awakening aligns with her craving for flesh, the two are interconnected and inseparable. Justine’s sense of power includes claiming her desires as her own. She does not only get sustenance from eating human flesh, she gains pleasure as she consumes others, but she also begins to recognize her own power; she embraces who she is. One night, Justine gets ready to go to a party alone. She dances in a mirror to “Plus Putes Que Toutes Les Poutes” (Sluttier than all the Sluts) by ORTIES while she puts on red lipstick and smears it on her face. The song, by a French rap duo of sisters, is telling. ORTIES are known for rapping about men the way men traditionally rap about women. By including this song in this particular scene, Ducournau shows that Justine’s story is a subversion of the typical narrative. Instead of a virgin coming to college and having her virginity taken on a man’s terms, Justine comes to college and has sex on her own terms. She realizes the power she has, claims it, and acts on it. She does all this through cannibalism, which is a direct confrontation with the abject and an embodiment of the monstrous-feminine. Instead of being punished for this, though, Justine’s narrative is more interested in her cannibalism as a metaphor for her coming of age.
Raw is an example of what horror can be when women hold the power. Julia Ducournou wrote and directed the film in unconventional ways. She made a point to have more women on screen than men. She built a relationship with actors who had sex scenes to make sure they felt comfortable and safe in filming them. She even talked to extras individually so their actions aligned with the movement and mood of the scene. The story itself centers women’s sexuality in an extremely non-traditional way; not only does it use cannibalism as its vehicle, but it center’s the women’s perspective and is not concerned with her virginity, but instead is concerned with her acquisition of power and pleasure through sex…and a little cannibalism.