Cave: Fresh (2022)
Mimi Cave’s Fresh is the latest addition to the burgeoning new wave of cannibal horror films, although it veers more towards a psychological thriller, recalling 10 Cloverfield Lane as much as Julia Ducournau’s Raw. There’s also more of a satirical element at play here that draws on Santa Clarita Diet, as Cave presents cannibalism as the connective tissue – so to speak – between the meat market of modern dating and the dream of suburban domesticity. The film starts with Daisy Edgar-Jones’ Noa preparing for yet another date, adjusting unusual parts of her body in the car (gums, forehead) before arriving at a Chinese restaurant where Cave throws the viscera of dining into vivid relief, from the crabs awaiting their fate in a tank, to the brutal preparation of chicken that closes out the meal. From the outset, there’s a link here between human flesh and animal flesh, although Cave doesn’t dwell too much on the ontological implications of that – this isn’t a vegan message piece – so much as collapses it into a broader reflection on the connections between eating and dating in the digital world.
For Noa’s defining character trait is her dislike of online dating, along with her yearning for physical spaces where people can meet, mingle and flirt more naturally. In the world of Fresh, this public sphere of dating has shrunk to eating-spaces, or spaces associated with food. On the one hand, we have restaurants, although these are still indebted to the virtual world, since you only generally end up there after making an arrangement online. On the other hand, we have the supermarket, the main public sphere of the film, at least as far as dating is concerned. Immediately after her opening date with “Chad,” Noa retreats to her local supermarket, which Cave presents as a miniature metropolis, filled with the most depressing and the most uplifting of possible human connections. Upon entering, Noa is confronted with a dystopian vision of her future, in the form of a lonely old man sneaking a covert sip of custard, but it’s also here that she meets Steve, played by Sebastian Stan, who soon becomes her first ever serious love interest after they come across each other in the produce section.
In fact, Steve appears to have emerged fully-formed from the produce section, which Cave romanticises as an older vision of the urban jungle, filled with a misty, rainforest-like fecundity. He bonds with Noa by recommending the cotton candy filled grapes, jokingly suggests they meet next week to discuss the broccoli, and goes through all the dating beats we might have once expected from a bar, club or other public space: “Do you live around here? Because I live on Aisle Six – I only come to the fruit section to meet people.” A romance blossoms, defined by Steve’s total absence from social media, a big turn-on for Noa, but also his dexterity in navigating and talking about food. In his presence, she feels comfortable ordering her favourite victual, a Manhattan with a copious amount of cherries, on the first date, while his revelation that he’s vegetarian makes her more curious about her own hunger as well. Since Steve works in reconstructive surgery, he feels more embodied, more present, more analog, especially when it comes to food, turning his romance with Noa into a series of edible textures that grow more abstract as the film proceeds, culminating with a pockmarked driveway, and a pockmarked painting, that usher in a rapid pivot to horror in the second act.
Before this happens, however, the film settles into a normcore romcom, as Steve and Noa appear to find the happy ending that the pre-digital era of feelgood cinema promised by default. There are shades of the banality of Normal People here, as the film lingers in that space between assuming the person you’ve met is normal, and realising that they’re not. During this period, culinary space continues to occlude public space, starting with the morning after Noa meets Steve, when she debriefs her date with best friend Mollie (Jonica T. Gibbs) in front of a food truck planted in the midst of an otherwise desolate city square. By the time that Steve suggests going away for a surprise weekend, public space has been entirely collapsed into the experience of eating, which has in turn been contained by this blooming romance, promising some conjunction and consumption of food and love in the days to come.
At this point, half an hour in, Fresh takes such a dramatic turn that only now does Cave introduce the credit sequence. After drugging and imprisoning Noa, Steve reveals that “I’m going to sell your meat and your hair and weird shit like that.” Perversely and paradoxically, this means keeping her alive for as long as he can, since the fresher the meat the better, as the two settle into a Gothic marriage plot, a parody of human(e) farming, in which even Noa’s mental health has to be carefully calibrated, as “stress isn’t good for the meat.” Their romance is more about food than ever, since it consists largely of him feeding her and preparing her as food, starting with her buttocks, which he removes first, as if to symbolically reframe her as the end point of someone else’s digestive tract. We only get brief glimpses of Steve’s clientele, who he describes as the “one percent of the one percent,” so the focus here is mainly on the way Noa processes her trauma, in collaboration with Steve’s other prisoners, who she can hear, but not see, through the walls of the basement where she is kept chained to her bed.
Rather than present marriage as an alternative to the meat market of modern dating, then, Cave suggests that the marriage fantasy itself is (and always was) part of the same perverse consumption. For that reason, Fresh doesn’t emphasise the abject threshold between live bodies and meat like most other cannibal films, but instead imagines a world where eating human flesh is as matter-of-factly normalised and as much of a culinary event (when the quality is high) as regular meat-eating. That’s an eerier and uncannier prospect, in some ways, and almost turns the film into a serious attempt to envisage the cannibal community – you can imagine that if synthetic human flesh ever becomes a delicacy, the promotional campaign will look a lot like this film. While there are sustained food preparation scenes, they’re shot in the same funky way as reality food television, much as Steve’s house looks like a reality set (light wells full of ferns harken back to the verdant green of the produce section) and Steve himself enters the hyperbolised register of a reality host once he gets into his meat groove. You could easily believe a live audience is watching the surgery too, since the entire process, from the preparation to the plating, is suffused with a sense of flamboyant food performance.
The result is a bit like the cannibal chic of Hannibal, or Armie Hammer’s Instagram feed, but without the same lapses into horror, which is not to say that horror doesn’t occur, but that it’s quickly defused, or deflected into a more psychological sense of suspense. If anything, the film is curious about how human flesh might look as the logical conclusion of fine dining, the ultimate signifier of the good life that’s meant to eventuate from the dating market. To that end, Cave stays away from the more gruesome possibilities of cannibalism even as she outlines a surprising array of ways that human flesh might be prepared, from ribs to pate to carpaccio to meatballs on pasta. Since Steve is an extremely accomplished butcher and chef who just happens to work with human meat, his creations seem ready-made for a polished Instagram story, evoking culinary pleasures that have to be experienced to be believed: “If it’s done right, it’s fucking exquisite – it’s like nothing you’ve ever had before.” Rather than escaping the endless cycle of images that typifies online dating, the cannibal community reiterates them, while denying even the most abject bodily experience as an escape route.
In fact, the more abject Noa’s situation becomes, the less embodied she feels, as her bodily experience is distributed across the spectacle-market that Steve commands, or at least feeds. As a result, there’s no possibility of using her body to directly thwart him, as she quickly realises. Instead, she has to lean into the market, and become a cannibal herself, in order to deceive him with a more potent spectacle than those he orchestrates. This project takes up the third act of the film, which sees Noa renew her initial romance with Steve, but in a darkly comic vein. Once again, they bond over food, except this time it’s human flesh, as she asks him to initiate her into the ways of cannibalism, and makes sure to mirror his own sense of its sublimity: “It’s not what I expected…it’s indescribable.” By the time he trusts her enough to take off her handcuffs and invite her upstairs for a reprise of their original date, they seem to be the same couple we saw in the opening scenes. Steve reverts back to one of their first conversations – “I remembered what you said back then about growing up alone and realised that nobody had ever cooked for you” – while she revives the same perky irony that attracted him to her in the first place, noting he “saved the breast for last” as the meal reaches its apex.
By this final act, Cave has collapsed the cannibalistic consumption of bodies back into the logic of online dating so thoroughly that the effect is more uncanny than horrific. The film flickers between disembodied limbs and organs with the same casual disinterest that you might scroll through profiles on a dating app, producing an intensified normality that crystallises around the depictions of Steve’s home life. Mollie, Noa’s friend, quickly tracks him to a suburban house, where she meets his wife Ann, played by Charlotte De Bon, and inquires about Noa. At first, it seems like Steve must have a double life, but we quickly learn that Ann is in the know, and that their cannibal business is the cornerstone of their suburban affluence. Steve thus moves from a lone psycho to one half of an ambitious, entrepreneurial and upwardly mobile couple – the cannibals next door. They’re the next step beyond Santa Clarita Diet, matter-of-factly discussing the “product,” which for them is simply a way of keeping food on their table (and even then, they can’t afford to partake of human flesh too much themselves) as they go about their daily routines: dressing, showering, and take care of their two kids.
Noa’s efforts to re-romance Steve, and Steve’s own normcore suburban life, propels the final act of Fresh further into satire, until it approaches something close to a cannibal sitcom. Mollie is apprehended by Steve and Ann just before she leaves their house, when she calls Noa’s phone, and hears the ringtone – “Thank You For Being a Friend,” the theme music from Golden Girls – emanating from his front pocket. On the cusp of Steve and Ann’s suburban kingdom, this most beloved of sitcom themes draws a queasy link between the feelgood landscapes of American cinema and the consumption of bodies that undergirds them. This eerie cusp between normcore and cannibalism continues into the showdown, when Steve and Noa cap off their cannibal banquet by slow dancing to Richard Marx’s “Endless Summer Nights.” All of a sudden, we’re back to the vanilla fantasies that closed out the abbreviated first act, as Steve finally removes Noa’s handcuffs, inviting her back into his life once again.
This time, though, it’s Noa who ruptures the mood, striking Steve, freeing Mollie, and also freeing Penny, Noa’s neighbour, played by Andrea Bang, who we now see for the first time. As the three women make their way out into the freezing night, and discover just how isolated they are in the middle of the woods, they quickly elude Steve, meaning it’s Ann, who arrives soon after, who becomes their final adversary. From the moment Ann comes across Steve’s body, and coldly appraises it before setting her sights on the three women, we realise she’s always been the head of operations, as Cave somewhat provocatively suggests that it’s the aspirations of white womanhood that ultimately drive the toxicity of online dating – the shared fantasy, of both men and women, of what it is that white women are supposed to be. In a quite chilling climax, Ann comes across Noa, who hasn’t ever seen her, and pretends to be an ally, claiming to be another of Steve’s escapees, and “empathising” with her pain, before slamming her to ground to salvage what little “product” she can from her injured body.
At this point, Ann totally eclipses Steve as the antagonist of the piece, prompting Noa to stab her in the neck with her car keys, the last refuge of women confronted by male violence in public space. We’ve seen Noa take out these keys earlier in the film, when she’s being followed to a parking lot outside the first restaurant, only for her “pursuer” to be an Asian man who is benignly taking his daughter for an evening stroll. By this stage in the film, then, the fantasy of white womanhood, and suburban normalcy, has absorbed even the most misogynistic possibilities of the dating world, as Penny and Mollie surge in to help Ann – an alliance between an African American woman, an Asian American woman and a working-class brunette against a blonde white suburban matriarch – while Mollie seethes that “bitches like you are the fucking problem.” Cannibalism, in Cave’s vision, is the logical endpoint of an online dating economy that is obsessed, above all, with all the ways that white womanhood can be consumed, and if the film only explores a few of the many implications that follow, then that’s also a part of its richness, its evocation of online dating as a darkly comic extended universe.
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