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All the Fine Young Cannibals





(Spoilers ahead)

Ah, the age old question; what do women want? - Family? Success? Love? Trust? All of the above? Julia Ducournau asks the more pertinent question in her debut feminist horror Raw; what is it to be human? 

      Ducournau’s Raw achieved critical acclaim this year for to its stark comparison between a girl’s coming of age and brutal cannibalism. This French feminist-influenced horror film first started to gather interest when an audience member fainted during a screening at the Toronto International Film Festival, and it has picked up momentum ever since.

      Raw begins on a long stretch of road, as a girl runs out in front of a car like a frightened deer, causing it to veer from her path and into a tree. The scene then cuts to the protagonist, Justine, as she eats a last meal with her parents before they drop her off for her first day at university. The family is introduced as vegetarians, after complaints when Justine finds a meatball in her mashed potatoes.

      The film follows Justine as she joins the veterinary school where her sister already resides. Straightaway we are shown how the 'freshmen' are put through initiation tests by the older students: they have to stand and watch as their beds are thrown out windows, drenched in blood and finally forced to eat raw rabbit's kidney. The new students don’t object to any of this as it is considered standard practice before they are accepted into the community. Justine, however, does object to the rabbit kidney, citing vegetarianism as the reason. Her once-vegetarian sister Alexia steps in and tells her that she has to do it, so as to not be seen as a troublemaker. By such means, the new intake are forced by the older students into the 'real' world and away from the protective ways of their parents - whom it transpires also went to this particular uni - and Justine’s coming-of-age story starts to unfold.

      Over the course of the film, Justine becomes physically affected by the rabbit kidney, with lesions and rashes appearing on her stomach and legs. Ducournau presents these symptoms as physical representations of changes in Justine’s mind, and the first stage in her transformation. Soon after, she is shown to be in pain and craving raw meat, which incites her to eat some raw chicken. The contradictions that come with being a vet are transposed onto the human characters during the film. Being a vet means caring for animals’ well-being, while also having to sometimes watch them in pain and/or dying; the fact that Justine becomes ill when eating part of an animal for which she cares deeply exemplifies the moral conflict within her.

      Justine's sister Alexia sets out on a mission to help her become a woman. She teaches her how to pee standing up, plucks her eyebrows for her and just as she starts a Brazilian wax, she accidentally cuts off her own finger. With her sister unconscious from the pain, Justine nibbles on the severed finger, which begins the second stage of her transformation from naive teenager to out-and-out cannibal. 

      The story is presented in a very single-minded way, with Justine often seeing and hearing only what she wants to. When she is eating meat in public for the first time, a truck driver tells her how pigs are very close to humans in terms of their DNA. Later on, when she is in the waiting-room at the hospital with Alexia, a man is shown staring at her and laughing hysterically - a paranoid scene which illustrates how she has still to come to terms with who and what she is. Her father, thinking it was their dog that ate Alexia's finger, tells her that it will have to be put down because 'an animal who has tasted human flesh isn’t safe; if he liked it, he will bite again'. As result, she has to decide whether to save the dog from being destroyed by admitting that it was she who ate the finger, or allow an innocent animal to die, and her previous moral certainties become increasingly confused.

      We eventually find out that Alexia is also a cannibal, when she takes Justine to the long road where she causes cars to crash, so that she can eat their dead occupants. At this point, the viewer assumes that the entire family are vegetarian so as to protect people from their cannibalistic ways, thereby making the film into one about finding out 'who' you are, where you come from and how you deal with that information.

      Justine’s teacher tells her that he dislikes 'smart' students because they bring everyone else in the class down and that he would much prefer her to be the one to have her grades docked; this forces her to report her classmate for cheating, to save herself from blame. Her father later compares intelligence to cannibalism, the eating of one's peers, when he describes how Alexia was clever enough to go into politics - suggesting in the process that society at large has developed ‘tall poppy syndrome’ (the notion of a communal distaste for the intelligentsia) as a reflex against cannibalism - that cannibalism is, in effect, for the intellectuals among us.

      The frat parties in Raw are portrayed as mating rituals, which again points to the animalistic nature of humans. There is a scene where Justine has sex with her gay room-mate and becomes animalistic and uncontrollable, before finally calming down by sucking blood from her own arm. Justine finally gets drunk and goes completely off the rails, and Alexia exploits her for her own gain, publicly mocking her yearning for human flesh. The confrontation between the sisters comes to a head in the courtyard of the university where they bite each other harder and harder until they're restrained by fellow students. Suddenly outcast, the sisters join together in their battle against convention, which quickly spirals into murder, landing Alexia in prison.

      Raw is a brutal coming-of-age fable which explores teenage morals, female sexuality, hunger, violence, sisterhood but, most of all, what is it to be human. Ducournau explores how becoming an adult begins when you start to make your own decisions, creating your own moral compass and thereby fitting into society. The system forces Justine to eat meat to ‘fit in’, when ultimately fitting into society actually means NOT eating your fellow humans - the message here being that capitalist societies actively encourage predatory behaviour, but then they look down upon it when it occurs. Base instincts are pandered to, but they are also required to be sublimated for the common good. 

      The moral of the tale is that adolescence is a confusing mix of right and wrong, ethical conundra and peer-group power-play - a maze of contradictions that evryone must at some time negotiate. Despite its superficial B-movie plot and faddish glaze of gore, RAW is an allegory on those difficult years, when teenage-hood meant 'finding' yourself, trying to fit in, being skinny but not anorexic, working hard but not being the best, but most of all trying not to be weird when that’s exactly what you are. Life in the raw, in other words, before conformity takes the edge off us.