Horror genre seems to be elevating to a completely new level. Let it be Ana Lily Amirpour’s feminist vampire masterpiece A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook, Leigh Janiak’s Honeymoon or Karyn Kusama’s The Invitation, one thing is becoming quite clear: horror films are, thanks to these women filmmakers, getting a completely new and refreshingly innovative dimension of scary. But none of those films have been quite as fascinating, disturbing, funny and disgusting as Julia Ducournau’s extraordinary first feature Raw, a blood-soaked coming-of-age story about finding one’s femininity, sexuality and identity.
Justine, a brilliant 16-year old who graduated early, is stepping into the world of adults by following her parent’s footsteps and starting a veterinary college. Away from her protective parents and with no-one but an older sister who hardly acknowledges they are related to look after her, she finds herself in the world of grown-ups – and it’s vicious, unwelcoming and scary. It is no revelation that people can be mean to each other, but a college campus with minimal supervision and control from the administration, proves to be a hell breaking loose as senior students decide to put newbies to test through a series of hazing ceremonies. They trash their dorms, get rid of their mattresses, made them crawl to a raging party in the middle of the night (a scene that turns into a gorgeously choreographed one-take party shot), pour buckets of blood on them in what looks like a group variation of De Palma’s cult scene in Carrie, and force them to eat raw rabbit’s livers.
It is here that film takes an unexpected turn into a gory body-horror. Justine, despite loudly protesting against eating meat as she comes from a family of devout vegetarians, eventually (and much to her sister’s aggressive insistence) gives in – only to suffer the consequences that none of the other students could foreseen. Not only does her body reacts to the food with a rash that spreads all over her, but she later almost overnight develops a gnawing desire for meat – and along with it, a sexual appetite that soon turns into desire for human flesh itself. Her physical metamorphosis should obviously be read as a metaphor for her going through puberty and coming out of it as a newly-born sexual being that’s still trying to figure out and establish her adult identity. But Ducournau takes the film’s premise of her coming to terms with her sexuality and repressed bestiality a bit further and it is here that her name – inspired by de Sade’s Justine from Justine, or the Misfortunes of Virtues, begins to make sense.
After a hilarious bikini-waxing scene that quite clearly parodies the extent of torture women are willing to go through to fit into the socially constructed understandings of “beauty” and “femininity” takes a dark turn (in what may simply be interpreted as Justine’s refusal to conform to the rules imposed on a female body) and she for the very first time gets a taste of human flesh, Ducournau jumps into a risky territory of introducing us to a new-born cannibal with whom we are meant to sympathise. And it is indeed these insatiable cannibalistic urges – something animalistic that has awoken inside of her – that make us feel uneasy, if not downright disgusted while watching this film. But there is quite a simple explanation for this feeling of discomfort – and we do not have to look any further than to Freud’s explanation of “uncanny”.
Freud’s uncanny involves a paradox in that it concerns something which is at once frighteningly alien and strangely familiar. The feeling of familiarity is equally important as the feeling of strangeness here, as this feeling is always connected to some deep part of ourselves. The “other”, in our case Justine, is thus not truly other, but a core aspect of the self – and this feels uncanny exactly because there is a feeling of recognition. From the point of view of our civilisation, it is nature that is that “primal uncanny”, the other that is actually the core of our being that has undergone a cultural repression. And while horror has a long tradition of blurring the borders between humans and animals, it usually does so by character’s literal transformation into a beast (let it be a werewolf or something else), where it is easier for a viewer to keep some distance and not fully identifying with it. But Justine doesn’t go through any drastic physical changes. She still looks like a normal teenager, whose only changes in character are her growing confidence, more provocative dressing choices, increasing alcohol consumption and experimenting with sexuality. Her bestiality can’t be detected by her visual appearance; it’s hidden beneath the surface, being a part of her core self, as it is a part of all of us. The film plays with the idea that we are all, deep down, animals – something we repressed as soon as we stepped into the “cultured” and “civilised” world of humans; in the symbolic order of language, inter-subjective relations, ideological conventions and the law.
One of Justine’s first victims, her older sister Alexia (strongly resembling Béatrice Dalle from Trouble Every Day; another film that quite disturbingly blurs the line between human sexuality and cannibalism), is actually the one who most persistently tries to pull her out of the world of the law, of the symbolic, reconnecting her with the real. Being a cannibal herself, and already in full acceptance of her hungry-for-human-flesh identity, she tries to teach Justine how she too could fully embrace her newly found insatiable hunger. Their complicated sisterly relationship, always switching between love, friendship and rivalry, is central to the film’s exploration of what it means to be a (teenage) girl, and although Raw is gruesome and gore to the point it may at times be difficult to stomach, it nevertheless manages to deliver an intelligent exploration of femininity, the female body and its appetites. Not only are Justine and Alexia women with insatiable (sexual) appetites, violent impulses and angry outbursts (something usually denied to women on film, if not in life in general) – they also have bodies that bleed, sweat, puke and pee; something that, again, is not usually seen on screen where a woman’s presence is always subjected to pleasing the male gaze. True, the sisters have a taste for devouring human flesh in a quite literal manner, but is the society we are a part of truly that much different fictitious veterinary school where students are developing a taste for raw meat? We may be devouring each other in a more figurative way, but we are doing it nonetheless – for what is capitalism if not people eating each other alive in a competitive fashion, for their own personal gain and success?
Despite Alexia trying her best to make Justine a part of her cannibalistic rampage, her little sister decides against it. And it is here that Ducournau’s main point comes into play: it is not through some pre-existing social order that gets passed down to us from our parents and society we are born into, that we become humane. No matter how cultured, civilised, knowledgeable we are, there is still a part of us that exceeds the symbolic. And it is only by acknowledging this repressed monstrosity inside of us, the monstrosity that has the ability of causing unimaginable cruelty towards another human being, and then wilfully choosing compassion over our hunger for blood, that we can fully gain our humanity.