It’s 2017 and on the big screen women are constantly cannibalising people in the midst of a sexual awakening – why?
Growing up, I identified the most with teenage girls who came of age in horror movies: Lydia Deetz, Nancy from The Craft, Ginger Snaps’ eponymous werewolf. Badass goth babes for sure, with frighteningly good taste in chokers, who said things like “We are the weirdos, mister,” and “Suicide is, like, the ultimate fuck you.” These films zeroed in on the parts of adolescence left out of other coming-of-age flicks: the body horror, the psychosexual angst, the Lynchian nightmare of hormones. They weren’t afraid to show the inherent monstrous quality of teenagerhood. They cast their teenage girls accordingly, as literal monsters.
The girl-monster was a product of her era. So in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, she appeared as a teenybopper testing positive for Satan. And in the ‘90s and early 2000’s, she was a sarcastic, suburban night-crawler. Lately, she’s been gravitating towards cannibalism. Teen cannibal movie Raw, a French-Belgian production debuting next month in UK theaters, is the latest in a wave of films where female sexual awakening manifests as an insatiable urge to eat people. Hangry mermaid musical The Lure, Netflix housewife saga Santa Clarita Diet, and Ana Lily Amirpour’s hotly anticipated The Bad Batch have made 2017 a hotbed for cannibalism. And as films like Wetlands and White Girl push the coming-of-age genre into increasingly unflattering lighting, the cannibal movie has become the perfect vehicle for our messy, bloody, and often gruesome transition into adulthood.
Even though Raw is her first feature, director Julia Ducournau is not fucking around. It’s right there in the title, which spells out quite explicitly a departure from both Hannibal Lecter’s epicurean pretensions and YA’s manic pixie pathology. She’s determined to exhibit teenage girlhood in all its grisly, indecent glory, no matter the cost. Even that of paramedics, who had to be called to a few early screenings. Totally unintended, of course, but Ducournau couldn’t have asked for better proof that her film was long overdue.
Raw gets ugly way before the cannibalism starts. It sets the mood by opening with a car crash, and then dumps us unceremoniously into the hell that is rush week at French vet college. Our Dante is the virginal, herbivorous Justine (Garance Marillier). Despite the twig legs and doe eyes, Justine lacks the lobotomized Bambi-ness we expect of our ingénues. She’s weird, snobby, kind of a bitch. Her naivety is obnoxious instead of endearing, her self-righteousness the source of the film’s many gore-less cringefests. In one excruciating lunchtime scene, Justine declares a little too loudly that a monkey feels just as much pain when it’s raped as a human. “So a raped woman, raped monkey, same thing?” interrupts a girl, pain and rage scrawled all over her face. With the bravado of the truly clueless, Justine says yes.
So when a rabbit kidney is forced down her throat during a hazing ritual, we can’t help but look forward to seeing her finally knocked down a peg. This, however, never happens. Instead, she responds to that initial taste of flesh how sheltered overachievers tend to respond to big, bad, stimuli forbade them in high school. Which is to say, she goes absolutely fucking nuts. She starts double-fisting raw chicken, smuggles lone hamburger patties in her pocket. One passionate rendezvous with a shawarma later, and she’s gotten her bloodlusts completely mixed up. Unsure of whether she’s horny or hungry, she settles for both and snacks on a bottom lip during a makeout session. The scene that got the paramedics called begins with her on her back, legs spread, an attempted bikini wax that ends with the chewing and swallowing of a finger. By the time we’ve escalated to premeditated murder, Justine has digested far more than just a digit, she’s masturbated, lost her virginity to her supposedly gay roommate, and made out with her mirror to a rap anthem called “Bitchier than All the Bitches.”
“By the time we’ve escalated to premeditated murder, Justine has digested far more than just a digit – she’s masturbated, lost her virginity to her supposedly gay roommate, and made out with her mirror to a rap anthem”
When it’s all over, we’re unable to say where exactly the banging stopped and the binging began. This is, of course, the point, and what makes Raw one of the most masterfully executed coming-of-age films ever. Historically, girl-monsters have struggled to marry the sensual and the metaphorical. Carrie, for example, delights a little too obviously in the cleverness of its symbolism. Meanwhile, The Witch’s centuries of feminist baggage make everything a symbol, while A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night droops with self-consciousness. Aside from the played-out thirst entendre, vampires suffer from too many distractions — immortality, awkward fangs, a killer Vitamin D deficiency — that announce, in a stage-whisper, “You’re watching a metaphor.” The most successful so far is Ginger Snaps, which makes a strong case for puberty as a hairy, hormonal, monthly explosion of lycanthropy. But then it gets just a little too on the nose, and ends up dissolving into cheese. But with Raw, Ducournau has discovered the queen of girl-monster metaphors. The teen girl cannibal makes it impossible to tell where girl ends and monster begins, what is allegory and what isn’t, and whether a distinction even exists.
It’s an odd place to end up, considering the cannibal genre’s humbly misogynistic roots. The bulk of cannibal movies are Italian exploitation films from the ‘70s and ‘80s. In the genre’s glory days, teen girls in cannibal flicks invariably played one of two roles: titillating corpses to be feasted upon in pornographic detail, if they were white, or racist caricatures of monolithic, savage hiveminds, if they weren’t. Neither enjoyed much sexual autonomy. Then a gaggle of redneck movies, plus a monopoly by Hannibal Lecter, and it took until 2001 for someone to make the connection between cannibalism and female sexuality. That someone was Claire Denis, whose erotic cannibal drama Trouble Every Day remains a masterpiece of the New French Extremity. In many ways a spiritual predecessor to Raw, Trouble Every Day stars the inimitable Beatrice Dalle, who once devoured a dead man’s ear on acid, as a flesh-eating nympho with a prodigious appetite. Like Justine, Dalle’s Coré can’t seem to distinguish between lust and hunger, biting a man to death mid-coitus by chewing off his tongue.
It wasn’t until recently that directors truly embraced the cannibal’s bildungsroman potential. And even then, they tended to avoid parallels between man-eating and sexual awakening. There are teen girls in 2010’s We Are What We Are and its 2013 American remake, and some of them do come of age, but the cannibalism here is a distasteful family tradition they struggle to uphold, the story one of religious extremism rather than adolescent change. The cannibal in 2011’s The Woman provides a foil to, rather than an outlet for, its teen character’s stifled adolescence. And in 2016’s The Neon Demon, the heroine’s discovery of sexual power triggers a rapaciousness in her rivals, for whom cannibalism symbolizes nothing more than the most convenient way to dispose of competition.
But if White Girl, Bang Gang, The Diary of a Teenage Girl, and American Honey are any indication, there’s a craving for coming-of-age films with bite, and fat, and gristle. The teenage cannibal should keep us well-fed.