Raw – A Feminist Slant on Body Horror

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Raw is a 2016 French-Belgian body horror film which tells a coming of age story about sexual discovery through cannibalism. Yes, you read that sentence correctly. This is a film about sex and eating people. It is blatantly weird, unabashedly gross, and undeniably creative. This is far outside the normal spectrum of what I usually watch, but every now and then it can be fun to push one’s boundaries. In this case, I’m glad I did. Raw certainly is not for everyone, but those willing to take a chance will discover a surprising degree of substance beneath the bloody imagery.

Justine is a vegetarian first year veterinary student who comes from an entire family of vegetarian veterinarians. Quiet, meek, and with an aura of innocence about her, she arrives at her school and is abruptly thrust into a boundary smashing world slick with sexuality. Her veterinary college has intense hazing rituals which last throughout the first week of term. New students have their dorms wrecked, are forced to crawl about like animals in their underwear, and are even doused in buckets of blood in a scene reminiscent of Carrie.

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While the first week may be a torrent of abuses for the first years, for older students it is one big party. The college has a robust night life filled with raucous music and casual sex. Justine drifts through the hazing and parties – crass milestones of social acceptance, going along with them but never quite seeming to internalize them. Her wandering figure leads the camera through crowds of dancers, occasionally bringing pockets of nudity and sex acts into frame which highlight how out of place the virginal Justine truly is.

Our adrift protagonist briefly finds an anchor point in the form of her older sister Alexia, a fellow student at the college. Though happy to find one another, they are polar opposites – Alexia is worldy, rebellious, and exudes sexuality. She is the black sheep of the family. Rather than gaining an ally against the rest of the school, Justine finds that her relationship with her sister is more often adversarial than not.

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All of this comes to a head when Justine faces a hazing ritual in which she must eat raw rabbit kidney. For the first time, she protests. She’s a vegetarian who comes from an entire family of vegetarians. She cannot do this. She calls upon her sister for help, but Alexia is unsympathetic. She eats some kidney herself before roughly shoving the rest in the nauseated Justine’s mouth, telling her to conform or be ostracized by the rest of the school.

And here, as you might guess, is the turning point of the film. The first time Justine eats meat she is literally sickened by it, but afterwards she wants more of it. She’s metaphorically had her cherry popped. Like an obsessive compulsive, she secretly seeks out meat and her fascination with consuming it soon leads to…other things.

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I’ll leave out the details of how Justine first comes to try human flesh. What is more interesting is how Justine’s sexual awakening parallels her discovery of cannibalism. Her vegetarianism and her virginity break down contemporaneously. Led on by her sister, she becomes more sexually adventurous and aggressive. She seeks out experiences on her own and becomes the dominant player in her own sex life. Concurrently, through unhappy chance (which occasionally strains credulity) she has more and more opportunities to indulge her cannibalistic compulsions. As events escalate the two become increasingly intertwined.

The act of consuming another person has inherent sexual undertones. Just look at any form of vampire fiction, even the insipid Twilight movies, and try to pretend like the whole concept isn’t tinged with eroticism. Raw merely takes this concept further. Justine, once so passive and lacking in agency, transforms into a predatory figure, displaying an incredible range of talent by lead actress Garance Marillier. Her late night trysts with unsuspecting males become bloody encounters which can only by described as rapacious.

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And here at long last, we have arrived at the entire reason I am writing this review. This metaphor is what elevates the film above mere body horror. In the same way that good science fiction can critique aspects of modern society by envisioning alternate futures, so too does Raw critique rape culture by inverting the gender roles of the participants.

In Raw, the female supplants the male. An early scene where the two sisters pee standing up like men signals the presence of this conceit. Shy Justine looks the part of the victim, but through this sexualized cannibalism she becomes the rapist. She is assigned a male roommate, but she isn’t the one taken advantage of. She goes to a late night party with sexual overtones, but she isn’t the one who leaves violated and bloody. Victim blaming is overtly present in the film as Justine screams, “Why didn’t you fight back?” when she inevitably takes things too far.

The sick grotesqueness of Justine’s actions highlight the utter wrongness of it all and make us question why our society is often so quick to excuse this sort of behavior in males. Rape certainly isn’t condoned, but it is tolerated, even accepted as just part of the way things are. By engineering scenarios we expect to be dangerous to vulnerable young women and making them dangerous to men instead, director Julia Ducournau gives us new perspective and puts a feminist slant on body horror. It is an unexpected and effective move that gives surprising thematic depth to what is already a well executed film.

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If I were to compare Raw to anything, I’d say it’s closest English language counterpart is Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan, the psychological thriller about ballet for which Natalie Portman won Best Actress. Both films feature a meek, sexually repressed protagonist coming into her own, a complex, adversarial relationship between the leading ladies, a slow deterioration of the protagonist’s mental state, and an escalating sense of horror and dread. Like Black Swan, Raw has a strong atmosphere and great cinematography. It portrays cannibalism with such unapologetic frankness that the on screen imagery becomes disturbingly authentic. Apparently audience members vomited at the film’s premier, so consider yourself warned. I wasn’t bothered by any of it, so either I just have a strong stomach, or deep down I’m actually a sociopath.

Raw isn’t for everyone, especially not those who prefer a steady diet of blockbuster candy. It’s French, artistic, packed with metaphorical imagery, and periodically disgusting. However, for those with adventurous tastes, those just looking to try something new, or anyone who can get past the initial bloody flavor, this film offers some surprisingly strong themes for you to chew on. After all, if you’re going to add some feminism to your cinema diet, you might as well eat it Raw.

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