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Cannibal coming-of-age: Julia Ducournau’s Raw

Lucy Vickers looks into the power of disgust in Julia Ducournau’s Raw (2016).

Meat sweating through the pocket of a lab coat, blood dripping slowly to the floor, the sound of flesh being torn apart. Only fleeting moments in Julia Ducournau’s Raw (2016), but an accurate taste of the film’s uncompromising use of graphic horror. In the first ten minutes alone we are shown spitting, sloppy mashed potatoes, tongues, sweaty bodies, and jars of pickled animals. These descriptions were what initially turned me and many others away from watching. When confronted with such graphic and unfamiliar ways of using human flesh my gut reaction was to feel nauseous and light-headed. The idea of having to watch someone do something I have always been told is abhorrent felt so wrong to the point of producing a physical response. I have often found that, whatever I have been told I may get out of watching a graphic film is not worth the harrowing experience that I must go through to get it. Raw, however, is different. 

Raw is gross and disgusting, but it is also an important story about acceptance, about what makes us normal, and about our relationship with what we eat. Though the very idea of the film is sickening, disgust is central to the point it wants to make. Ducournau wants us to feel ill but then uses the length of the film to convert this feeling into a more productive force. It is a unique cross-genre blend of the horror and the coming-of-age drama, combining an interesting collection of ideas from both. Raw is telling what might be a familiar story about the young adult experience, but through the horrific vehicle of cannibalism – and this is what really drew me in. 

The film follows Justine, an unassuming 16-year old girl, arriving at veterinary college for her first year. On her first night she is subjected to an intense hazing ceremony that extends into a week-long induction. They are made to crawl on the floor like animals, showered with buckets of blood, and expected to worship the older years like Gods. Raw constantly surrounds Justine’s story with the story of the calculated violence of the initiations. Ducournau sets up a violence that is easy to immediately criticise as a backdrop that contextualises the story she really wants to tell. So, when Justine begins to eat raw meat, followed by her first taste of human finger, it felt justificable to me considering what she was being subjected to during her induction week. I could easily criticise the hazing, but the complex nature of Justine’s turn to cannibalism was much harder to immediately reject. This, along with the fact that I felt a huge amount of sympathy for Justine, meant that, as I sat through my first watch, the cannibalism began to feel almost normal. It seemed no different to any other monstrous taboo or dirty little secret. It was only after finishing the film that I actually noticed, despite my initial reservations, how necessary the gross stuff was. If I was so blinded by my own sympathy for Justine that I could ignore intimate scenes of human flesh being torn apart, what does that say about how I relate to Justine’s young adult experiences?

Interestingly, at the same time as cannibalism becomes more understandable to us, Justine herself is constantly suppressing these desires, actively shielding the secret from all those around her. We may be being pushed towards understanding, but Justine feels nothing but shame – in much the same way as girls are often expected to feel about their own bodies. The disgust that she feels for herself and her inability to stop wanting meat regularly extends into a physical, bodily reaction. The first time that Justine eats meat is when she is peer-pressured into it as part of the initiations. Her body goes on to reject this, shown to us through an extremely visceral (and disgusting) all-body allergic reaction. Her body’s reaction represents both the disgust she feels for herself at having eaten meat, and also her body’s literal rejection of the first attempt to blend in. Every time a piece of graphic body horror is shown,  it is cleverly used in much the same way – symbolising the changing relationships Justine has with herself, other people, and other animals. 

Some have labelled Raw as a piece of vegan propaganda, perhaps implying that quitting vegetarianism will turn you into a cannibal. Whether this is true or not, certainly Ducournau has a lot to say about our relationship with meat. Justine enters college as a vegetarian, and her feelings about animals as food are in constant focus. She also relates to the animals she works with, in many ways reflecting how she is treated as sub-human – as an animal – during the college induction rituals. When she does eat human flesh, it seems as though it is an outcome of these things, of her changing relationship with animals through how she relates to and consumes them. She begins to eat animal flesh, but then also sees herself more and more as an animal, resulting in blurred moral boundaries that mean, in her view, how is animal eating animal any different from human eating human? Ducournau weaves together these different threads, asking questions about both humanity and animality, forcing you to contemplate your own relationship with animals. 

Raw is undoubtedly a disgusting film. It uses graphic body horror in many of the flesh-eating scenes, with varying degrees of visual gore and sickening sound design. But, though gloriously grotesque, they do not cheapen the experience nor make the film unwatchable. Raw is brilliant because of how necessary these moments of the gruesome are, not despite them. The horror does not lose its power by being manipulated in unusual ways, but is in fact enhanced and expanded beyond the traditional confines of the genre to tell new stories in new ways. And it is because of these things that I, a newcomer to the world of horror, have become such a big fan of the film in such a short space of time. With that in mind, as I sit down to watch Raw for the fourth time in two weeks, I would encourage you to put aside any reservations and embrace the power of the disgusting. 

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