I don’t think I can remember seeing a film as visceral and overwhelming as Julia Ducournau’s debut feature Raw, which actually induced me to pass out in a cold faint halfway through. So intense was it to watch that I can only imagine what it was like to direct and star in it, although it’s not an especially graphic film, despite raising visceral horror to a fever pitch. It’s also not quite a cannibalism film, or at least not cannibalistic in the traditional sense, despite the way in which it’s been somewhat sensationalised by reviewers. In fact, it probably has one of the deftest and most ingenious horror premises that I’ve seen in a long time, as well as raising some extraordinarily interesting questions about how and where so much of the underlying horror of horror films actually comes from. At its heart is Justine (Garance Maillier), a first-year university student who is following in her parents’ and older sister’s footsteps by enrolling in a veterinary science degree in a rural French university. It’s clear, from the moment that she arrives on campus, that Justine’s family are well-known in the veterinary field and profession, although it’s equally clear that veterinary science is going to pose a particular problem to her, since she’s a strict vegetarian, and will be presumably be caring for animals intended for slaughter and consumption. Granted, her entire family are vegetarians, but the impulse and ideology seems particularly strong with Justine, who has such an immediate and visceral response to the sensation of meat in her mouth that she almost passes out after accidentally getting some beef mixed up with her mashed potatoes in the diner where she and her family stop off on their way to the campus.
Things become even more fraught for Justine, however, when she realises that the first few weeks of veterinary science involve a complex and bizarre series of hazing rituals designed to impress upon the incoming freshmen that they’re mere “peasants” within the social economy of the university of the whole. From the outset, it’s clear that these are no ordinary hijinks, and are in fact a ritualistic way of coming to terms with the animality of the human body, and the continuity between animal and human bodies, before dissociating the two sufficiently to embark upon a career in veterinary science. After all, vets have to concede the humanity of animals, but only to a certain extent, especially when working on livestock, which form the focus of all the academic and lab sessions that we see here, with the result that these hazing rituals gradually coalesce around some horrific and unspoken affective labour required to subsume all but the most notional awareness of mankind’s position on the broader animal continuum. The tone is set on the first night, when the hazers herd the incoming “meat” through a series of tigher and tigher spaces within the dormitory, before forcing them to crawl down on their hands and knees, animal like, to the entrance of what turns out to be the welcoming party. In this space, as in all subsequent social spaces across the film, partying becomes a way of safely dissociating the human body into its most animalistic and impulsive drives, while simultaneously sequestering those drives from the specimens and species studied during the students’ daily academic pursuits.
Far from presenting vets as pioneers or protectors of animal rights, then, Raw presents veterinary science as the field that is most ideologically invested in maintaining the human-animal divide, suffused with the cognitive dissonance required to operate on a species that you may well consume that same night. At the same time, veterinary science is presented as a discipline that provokes chaotic convergences of the animal and human body, and so requires proportionately perverse gestures of discipline and disavowal to ensure that these remain within manageable limits, producing a sadistic maintenance of the human body as exceptional to or exempt from the rest of the animal kingdom. No surprise, then, that the other vet students are especially hostile to Justine’s vegetarian beliefs, since that hostility is, in a way, the ultimate goal of the hazing rituals, just as the rituals themselves are quickly presented as integral to the field of veterinary science – a form of institutionalisation – and every bit as significant a part of Justine’s training as her more “formal” academic education.
No surprise, either, that this hazing process culminates with Justine, and the other students, being required to ritualistically eat odd cuts and grotesque bits of meat, after being drenched in blood for a group photograph. The effects on Justine are quite different, however, from those of the rest of her peer group, since this not only restores her taste for meat, but gives her an even more pervasive taste for human flesh, which effectively comes to replace vegetarianism as her culinary object choice. Yet to call Raw a cannibal film wouldn’t be quite accurate, since Justine doesn’t have an exclusive taste for human flesh. Instead, the process of being forced to eat meat forces her to face the horror that galvanises vegetarianism, at least as the film present it – namely, the recognition that eating meat of any kind is to concede the edibility of the human body, and one’s own human body, in the process. Far from attributing vegetarianism to a form of spiritual liberation, or as the result of a parodic liberal ideology, Raw frames vegetarianism as a form of repression, and a form of repression so critical to the functioning of society – the repression of one’s own edibility – that society is inconceivable without some modicum of vegetarianism at its ideological core.
What Raw also suggests, however, is that only a modicum of vegetarianism, or a kind of sentimental vegetarianism – we eat cows but not kittens – can hide the traumatic import of a more radically articulated vegetarianism, and yet it’s exactly that import that Justine is now forced to confront. About midway through the film, a series of miscommunications convince Justine’s family that they have to put down their dog because it’s tasted human flesh, but the troubling message of the film is that anyone who has eaten any meat has tasted human flesh, or has at least conceded the possibility of tasting human flesh. Putting the audience in the nauseous position of a vegetarian forced to eat meat, or a meat-eater forced to consume their own flesh – the two are figuratively equivalent here – produces a visceral experience unlike almost any other I’ve seen on the big screen, and while Ducournau’s dexterity with blood and gore goes some way towards explaining that, it’s the evolution of Justine’s mouth over the course of the film that is mainly responsible for this extraordinary sense of bodily constriction and confrontation, which apparently led to multiple audience members in the original screenings of the movie passing out on the spot.
Specifically as the film proceeds, Justine’s mouth becomes more and more visible, since it initially starts off as a way of regulating the continuity between the animal and human worlds – if she doesn’t let any meat pass through, then she doesn’t have to concede the edibility of the human body – but quickly becomes the point at which that continuity becomes most visceral and most unbearable. Hence the indiscernible smudge that appears around her mouth in the second half of the film, part blood and part lipstick, but in both cases testifying to a gradual reembodiment of the mouth, and incorporation of its indiscriminate and undiscerning appetites back into the broader life of the body. At the same time, however, this also creates an antagonistic relation between the mouth and the body, ensuring that the mouth can never be become reembodied in a stable or seamless way, since if the human body is edible, then one’s own flesh is edible, and, by extension the very flesh around the mouth itself – the very flesh framing the mouth – is edible. While Justine may start to feed on other people, then, these bursts of rampant bloodlust all feel like so many ways of delaying the inevitable moment at which her mouth starts to chew on the flesh and skin around it, and indeed it’s not long before she starts to nibble and bite on her own extremities, contorting her into one weird and eerie oneiric posture after another.
It’s at these moments that the visceral kernel of the film really hits home, as Ducournau bypasses mere horror to tap into the deep primal reflex of a body rejecting its own flesh, resulting in one tableau after another in which Justine’s appetite has to contend with a contradictory and even deeper bodily impulse to vomit, eject and cough up what she most wants. Not since Drag Me To Hell have I seen a film in which the mouth, and the struggle between what the mouth wants and what the body wants, is so vividly painted, as Justine’s mouth continually tries to consume a body that refuses to process itself. Yet Ducournau goes even farther than Sam Raimi in her appeal to the viewer’s viscera, often seeming to have bypassed the audience’s subjectivity altogether to appeal directly to their gag reflex, in one of the most radical arguments for vegetarianism as a matter of bodily survival that I have ever seen on the big screen, or encountered in theory. So radical is that vegetarian ethic that it would almost be inherently queer in and of itself, but Ducournau also makes it clear, through a variety of cues, that queer sexuality, especially queer male sexuality, is the only other place where this indiscriminate appetite is properly acknowledged or articulated.
As might be expected, that creates quite an ambivalent take on queer male sexuality, or at least a certain kind of queer male sexuality, both of which are embodied in Justine’s roommate, Adrien, played by Rabah Nait Oufella. Early in the film, Adrien seems aligned with Justine’s vegertarianism, thanks in part to an encounter with a cruisey trucker who reminds him that “pigs are almost like humans…have you learned that yet?” thereby signaling his participation in a broader queer continuum of animal and human affects. Yet if queer male sexuality is tantamount to eating flesh, then it also necessitates a mode of containment not unlike Justine’s own vegetarianism, which perhaps explains why Justine gravitates towards Adrien sexually, and why Adrien gravitates towards her as well, despite not being able to explain to himself how it tallies with his exclusive interest in men up until this point. It also explains, more uncomfortably, why it is that Justine’s sister ends up killing and feasting on Adrien, since the import of his sexuality is, in some ways, precisely what Justine’s own vegetarianism is trying to contain and even suppress. While Raw certainly comes very close to what be described as a queer vegetarian aesthetic, then, I was occasionally unsettled by the role that queerness played in that matrix, and the extent to which it’s used as collateral damage in the relationship between Justine and her appetities.
Still, the ending of the film is too uncompromising, perhaps, to be too moralistic about the peremptory way in which Adrien is disposed of, since it’s clear that Justine is going to suffer the same fate – if only at her own hands – if she doesn’t find some drastic solution for managing it, a solution that the film never provides. Instead, all we get is her father’s final revelation that her mother has also lived her whole life with these cravings, as he displays his chest, covered in the bite marks and pockets of missing flesh from twenty years of marriage. It’s a tableau that encapsulates much of the visceral signature of the film, which doesn’t consist so much in gory spectacles of cannibalistic exploitation cinema – although there are one or two of those – so much as the first moments at which mouth and human flesh make contact. Interestingly, it’s that primal moment of contact that seems to fuel Justine and her sister more than anything else, since they rarely “finish off” any of their victims, and often only take a modicum of the flesh available from any one corpse. Yet it’s also that first moment of contact that proves the most repelling, and most stimulating to the gag reflex, perhaps explaining why they can only continue making that contact over and over again, without ever committing to eating a full body, while forcing the audience to relive that primal moment as well, in one of the most visceral horror movies I’ve ever seen.