Lust for Life: Finding Intimacy in Raw’s Bloody and Hungry Female Bodies
The female body can be manipulated, sexualised or ogled at, but it can rarely be dismissed. Finding intimacy in the desires for human flesh, Raw moves beyond how our screens usually present what women’s bodies are worth. Hannah Holway explores this subversion through the film’s understanding of cannibalism and sexuality.
In Julia Ducournau’s Raw, female bodies are presented in an unflattering light. Life-long vegetarian Justine struggles to fit in at the veterinary college her sister, Alexia, already attends – a struggle made much worse by the discovery of a desperate desire to eat human flesh, that grows in both girls. When I spoke to Ducournau about the film in 2017, she told me that she “tried to find an entry point” into Justine’s character for the audience, and ultimately achieved this “through the triviality of [her] body”. Considering that so many films ask the audience to identify with the male experience, Ducournau’s aim for her audience to relate to a young woman with cannibalistic cravings is no mean feat. But considering the entrenched representations of female bodies on screen as disposable, weak or as vehicles concerned solely with sexuality, this idea of triviality seems paradoxical.
In horror films from the 1970s slasher era, women are not only sexualised through fetishistic camera angles and scant, ripped clothing, as seen in I Spit on Your Grave, but they also always suffer for much longer than men – as in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The persistence of this latter trope has moved the term “final girl”, coined by feminist film theorist Carol Clover, into the common lexicon, describing the often virginal and morally “good” last woman standing after everyone else has been murdered; with the first to die usually being the sexually active young woman.
In Raw, Justine explores her sexuality with curiosity and passion, at the same time that she comes to terms with her cannibalistic impulses. But Ducournau is keen to point out that the two aren’t synonymous; rather, Justine’s cannibalism allows her to discover her sexual desires and accept them. When she loses her virginity to her gay roommate Adrien, in an encounter that she initiates, Justine is in control. The camera refuses to objectify her body, going against common practice for the genre – such as in the kissing scenes between Jennifer and Needy in Karyn Kusama’s Jennifer’s Body, in which the camera is placed as close to the characters’ mouths as possible. The sex scene in Raw is a messy, awkward encounter, with Justine attempting to bite into parts of Adrien’s body while also being aroused by their intimacy. Instead of Justine’s body being trivial in this scene, her sexuality is inextricably linked to her obsession with eating flesh, thus making the undesirability of her cannibalism inescapable.
When Justine’s desire for Adrien escalates as she watches him play football, a steady drop of blood trickling from her nose, a female gaze is at play: the camera fetishises Adrien’s topless, muscular body by only delivering quick-cut shots of its parts. The first time the audience sees Alexia, she is twerking. Justine later dances to Orties’ "Plus putes que toutes les putes", featuring lyrics such as “we don’t do porn, but we like strap-ons”, smearing her lipstick onto the mirror as she kisses it. Unsettling the objectifying, fetishistic male gaze that Laura Mulvey’s ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ taught us so much about, these women don’t necessarily find themselves objects of desire for men, but they become desirous to themselves. Alexia encourages Justine to experiment with her body in different ways; at one point, on the roof of one of the college buildings, she pulls down her trousers and teaches Justine how to pee standing up. In a scene where Alexia performs a bikini wax on her younger sister, Ducournau frames Justine’s pubic hair in an extreme close-up to allow the audience to relate to her pain, as Alexia tugs at the hair with the wax. Raw’s promotional campaign was unfortunately overshadowed by reports of viewers fainting in screenings at the Toronto International Film Festival, and a Los Angeles cinema subsequently providing “barf bags” for viewers, due to the supposedly distressing and gory shots.
Ducournau’s film has already been placed, alongside films like Baise-moi and Trouble Every Day, within the movement of New French Extremism: a genre that frequently features gratuitous depictions of sex, violence and torture. Indeed, Raw features images of half-eaten human carcasses, brain-consuming cannibals, a severed finger, and a painful rash being peeled from a stomach with tweezers. But the filmmaker provides a progressive entry to the genre by encouraging her audience to relate to a female body through “the grossness of the body, the fluid and the hair and the smell and everything”, as this grossness “talks to an intimacy that belongs to all of us”. While this intimacy may speak to audiences irrespective of gender, portraying the unattractiveness of a female body is ultimately still radical – Justine’s body cannot be seen as simply trivial.
Whether she’s feasting on her unconscious sister’s finger, biting down on one of her own teeth in the shower, scratching at the aggressive rash that takes over her body, or pulling clumps of hair from her throat into a toilet while retching, Justine’s body is consistently positioned in unpalatable ways. Along with the blood (both human and animal) that she is often spattered with throughout the film, Justine’s lanky, awkward gait, greasy hair and pasty complexion allows her character to align more naturally to the women of The Exorcist and Let the Right One In than to Jennifer’s Body’s eponymous antagonist. Even when Jennifer is eating people, she uses her sex appeal as a tool to get what she wants (seducing men in order to kill and eat them) and Megan Fox’s status as a sex symbol ensures that male and female audiences alike recognise her magnetism, despite her repulsive actions in the film. But Raw’s Justine isn’t particularly demonic, nor is she possessed with anything other than the cannibalism that was already present, laying dormant until she has her first taste of raw meat. She is the most obvious monster of the narrative, and yet we are asked to relate to her, to root for her, and to understand how an introverted teenage girl would deal with the newfound knowledge that she craves the flesh of other humans.
In the New French Extremism film Martyrs, young women must endure the most extreme torture, to supposedly reach a euphoric transcendence that will give an insight into what happens after death. Raw’s final scene harks back to Martyrs, as here Alexia and there, Anna (Martyrs’ protagonist) look past the camera in a catatonic state, covered in blood. The crucial difference in these female bodies is that while Anna is in unthinkable pain inflicted by others (after she is told that he has reached the “final stage” of her torture, she is subjected to being flayed alive) Alexia has just inflicted pain on another body, in the frenzied hunger enabled by her cannibalism, and is now seemingly satiated. Justine and Alexia only experience pain that isn’t self-inflicted when they fight each other, biting off chunks of the other’s cheeks and arms in a confrontation seen by the whole college. By presenting female bodies in such unattractive situations, Ducournau goes further than to subvert the highly sexualised images of suffering women by proving that female bodies can be portrayed in ways which have nothing to do with sexuality whatsoever. Whether as the final girl or the antagonist of a horror film, the female body is frequently imbued with more symbolism than its male counterpart. The genre’s tendency to relate women solely to their sexuality – often suggesting that female sexuality is what we should be most scared of, from monstrous menstruation in Carrie to deadly anatomy in Teeth – means that for a female body to be trivial has been near impossible.
As a young woman whose sexuality is “unleashed” by her overwhelming cannibalistic desires, Justine’s body cannot simply be dismissed. Lying on top of Adrien after they have sex, as he gently strokes her hair, she succumbs to her cravings and bites down on her arm, sighing with a heavy relief as the blood oozes out. Ducournau not only subverts the male gaze, but radically moves beyond it to suggest that female bodies can be both gross and desirable.
Hannah Holway (@HolwayHannah) is a Film Studies graduate and film writer from London. She loves women in horror, coming-of-age films and Black Mirror, and can be found writing about these and other things at Flip Screen, Talk Film Society, Hero and more.