Women are constantly fighting for control of their bodies. This is not an exaggeration, however extreme it may sound. One’s body is the most personal and precious possession one has — literally the only one we are born with — and yet, if you are a woman, it is also the most policed. Society tells us that women’s bodies must remain pure and virginal in order to be deemed desirable. Men in government aspire to limit our access to healthcare despite expecting our bodies to constantly churn out babies; they want to take away our birth control, but they also don’t want us to get abortions. We’re shamed into starving ourselves to get in shape for bikini season while men’s beer-bellied “dad bods” are glorified in the same media that shove those unattainable ideals down our throats.
In a world where women’s urges are so obsessively monitored and shamed by society, it’s no surprise that in pop culture, there is no shortage of stories of women rebelling against these attempts at control — often in extreme ways. In Han Kang’s Man Booker International Prize-winning novella The Vegetarian, a South Korean housewife is so traumatized by a bloody nightmare that she abruptly stops eating meat. Despite being shamed (and subject to abusive attempts at force-feeding) by her family and treated like an outcast by society, Yeong-hye holds fast to her desires and refuses to eat meat. Even when she is hospitalized and appears to be wasting away to those around her, she is more at peace and in control of her body than she ever had been previously. Why does a woman like Yeong-hye have to essentially cast off her human body in order to prevent others from telling her what to do with it? Why do women need to go to such lengths to prove their autonomy?
In her debut feature film, French writer-director Julia Ducournau covers themes similar to those in The Vegetarian, but reverse-engineers them for maximum shock and awe. Instead of telling the story of a woman deciding to give up meat, Raw chronicles what happens when a lifelong vegetarian discovers an animalistic desire to consume raw meat during a hazing ritual at veterinary school. What follows is an intensely visceral, gore-filled saga of one young woman taking control of her body and her urges, however unacceptable they may seem to the rest of the world. In an interview with Women and Hollywood, Ducournau said she “wanted the audience to feel empathy for a character that is becoming a monster in their eyes.” While you might not be able to comprehend the nature of protagonist Justine’s desires, you cannot help but sympathize with her struggle to balance what her body wants with what is expected of it by others.
Justine, played by the suitably wide-eyed and coltish young actress Garance Marillier, comes from a family of
strict vegetarian veterinarians. She plans to follow in the family tradition by joining her older sister, Alexia (Ella Rumpf), at the same veterinary school that their parents both attended. While Alexia is a bit of a wild child, Justine is a quiet, albeit passionate, prodigy. She comes to the vet school more prepared for her studies than the vast majority of the students around her, including her roommate Adrien (Rabah Naït Oufella). What Justine isn’t prepared for, however, are the extreme hazing rituals forced upon the “rookies” by the older students, including Alexia. These include being forced to sing along with strange songs, having buckets of blood poured over them for a class photo, and — in the moment that changes everything for Justine — being pressured into eating raw rabbit kidneys. Justine initially refuses, citing her family’s vegetarianism and asking Alexia to back her up. When Alexia denies her claims and eats one of the kidneys right in front of her, Justine doesn’t feel as though she has any choice but to follow suit or be shunned by the rest of the school. She’s nearly sick, but she does it nonetheless.
Soon, Justine finds herself plagued with a raw red rash on most of her body. The school doctor chalks it up to food poisoning, despite Justine mentioning that she also feels ravenously hungry all the time. Justine takes the cream prescribed by the doctor; she also starts stealing hamburgers from the cafeteria and eating late-night shawarma with Adrien. But these seemingly normal cravings — which could be chalked up to a girl discovering that once she is free from her parents’ overwhelming and possibly stifling influence, she actually likes different things than them — turn extreme quickly; gnawing on raw chicken in the middle of the night extreme; lusting after the body of her gay roommate until she gets a nosebleed extreme. But all of this pales in comparison to the moment when Alexia accidentally cuts off part of her finger in a freak scissors accident and Justine picks it up and starts eating it.
This incredibly unsettling scene is skillfully played for maximum impact by Ducournau, from the frantic and electric turn that Jim Williams’ musical score takes to Marillier’s intense performance, in which one can see her visibly struggling with her desire to taste human flesh and her knowledge that what she wants to do is wrong. The scene then takes a delightful yet disturbing comic turn when Alexia wakes up from her faint to stare agape at her younger sister as she nibbles on a part of her body. You can’t help but laugh, both as an attempt to ease discomfort with what is happening and also because what’s happening is pretty damn funny.
It turns out Alexia is subject to the same strange urges as Justine, going so far as to cause a car crash on a deserted road just to provide both sisters with a couple of corpses to feast on. In her own twisted way, this is Alexia’s idea of being a supportive and understanding sister. Yet while Alexia has no qualms about wanting to eat human flesh, Justine flees, unable to come to terms with what her body wants. As the film progresses, Justine continues to struggle, vacillating between allowing herself to succumb to her desires while also fighting to contain them. In no scene is this better visualized than when Justine’s overwhelming lust for Adrien results in her losing her virginity to him and, when she climaxes, sinking her teeth into her own arm after Adrien refuses to let her bite him. As blood oozes out, Justine grows visibly relaxed. Tasting flesh, even her own, seems more satisfying than sex for her.
By the end of the film, Alexia’s uninhibited actions have resulted in tragedy and she’s hospitalized, after which Justine learns from her father that their mother is subject to the same urges. “You’ll find a way to control it,” her father says in an attempt to comfort Justine about this distressing family trait, but his words elicit only deep choking sobs from his youngest daughter. In the end, who is more free? Is it Alexia, trapped in an institution but with nothing left to hide, or Justine, out in the real world but forced to keep such a large part of herself a secret?
As Justine starts giving in to her desires, gobbling raw meat and ogling Adrien’s shirtless torso, she becomes more confident. The quiet, meek student who seemed to be trying to disappear into her oversized sweaters starts projecting an aura of boldness. Donning her sister’s slinky cocktail dress to writhe in front of her bedroom mirror and smear lipstick seductively across her mouth, Justine is vastly more comfortable with her body as a cannibal than she was as a virginal vegetarian.
In showing us Justine starting to blossom, is Ducournau condoning cannibalism and condemning vegetarianism? Absolutely not. What she does with Raw is use the traditional tropes of body horror to tell the story of one young woman’s awakening. The obvious youth of her lead actress (Marillier was born in 1998) makes her message hit all the harder. It’s frightening and disturbing, as coming of age often is. Watching your body change and awaken to new desires is scary enough; dealing with the constant messages from society that everything you’re dealing with is somehow wrong is even worse. By filtering this all-too-common struggle through the extreme lens of cannibalism, Ducournau highlights the absurdity inherent in how women’s bodies and desires are policed.
Lee Jutton has directed short films starring a killer toaster, a killer Christmas tree, and a not-killer leopard. Currently a staff writer at Film Inquiry, her writing has also appeared in publications such as Bitch Flicks, Bitch: A Feminist Response to Pop Culture, TV Fanatic, and Just Press Play. You can follow her on Twitter @leiladaisyj for more opinions on movies, pictures of cats, and ramblings on German soccer.