For many of us, especially for women, our bodies hold experiences that contribute to the greater understanding of our own identity. Coming of age films seek to illustrate the period of our life that focuses on the process of coming into our identity often by focusing on the awkwardness of our physically changing bodies, the strangeness of discovering our sexuality, and the liberation of authentic self-expression. Regardless of the binaries that frame our general ideas of sex and gender, narratives that represent these transitional periods of our lives reflect similar feelings in their protagonists, encouraging their viewers to empathize with those characters. Julia Ducournau’s Raw (2016) takes a sensually corporeal approach towards rendering its protagonist’s gory metamorphosis into her own feminine identity as she slowly finds agency through the bodily and bloody expression of cannibalism.
Sixteen-year-old Justine (Garance Mareiller) is an incoming student at a local veterinary school where she is subject to first-year hazing, rude professors, and the transition towards living away from home for the first time. Taken under her older sister Alex’s (Ella Rumph) wing, Justine slowly explores her autonomy, beginning with a reluctant decision to allow herself to break her life-long diet of vegetarianism by taking part in a hazing ritual of eating a rabbit kidney. This sends her on a gruesome journey of self-discovery, eventually triggering a desire for human flesh that is almost unrestrained.
The daughter of a gynecologist and a dermatologist, director Julia Ducournau offers a clinical gaze upon the bodies that fill up the shots of Raw. Too often in coming of age films, young characters are sexualized and images are projected upon them as developing sexual beings rather than physical masses of flesh on camera. Ducournau’s perspective provides an insight that is simultaneously intimate as it is corporeally aware. In one of the film’s most catalyzing scenes, Justine’s sister Alex forces her onto the bed to give her a bikini wax. In a close up of Justine’s crotch, the camera is clinically unapologetic without even a tinge of glamor, mercilessly bringing the viewer into the intimacy of Justine’s vulnerability and physical pain that we phenomenologically share with her.
The body is a central focus in Raw. Contextualized by having this story unfold in a veterinary school, our protagonist is framed under scientific observation as she struggles to manage her animalistic desires. Short glimpses of a horse being put to sleep in class or a dream of a horse being monitored on a treadmill mirror the feeling of being actively assessed. This assessment swells with tension as we watch Justine navigate suppressing her cannibalistic obsession until she eventually succumbs to the violent demands of her body.
In a climactic scene, Justine’s sister accidentally cuts off her finger. After calling an ambulance and the panic subsides, music begins to pick up as a medium shot frames Justine in the foreground with her sister’s dog licking up the bloody mess in the background. In this moment, Justine is head to head with her animalistic temptation making her canine companion a reflection of her true self. We watch as she slowly enjoys analyzing the finger until she desperately begins to lick up the blood and eventually eat it in its entirety. Rather than provoking a sense of disgust, this scene ultimately sets us up to enjoy the moment with her. We find relief with Justine as we watch her give in to what she had been fighting all this time.
What the consumption of human flesh signifies for Justine is the beginning of finding her own authenticity of self-expression. This authenticity, however, comes at a cost. Her character is established as relatively naive and innocent. She is obedient to her parents, takes her vegetarianism very seriously, and she’s sexually inexperienced. Once she takes this step in finding her autonomy, everything changes. The first bite of this forbidden fruit ignites Justine’s feminine identity as she develops a stronger agency. She gets in touch with her femininity dancing around her dorm room in her sister’s cocktail dress listening to “Plus putes que toutes les putes” (more whores than all the whores) by ORTIES which lyrically sexualizes cannibalism and necrophilia from a position of feminine power.
We see the way she looks at her roommate Adrien (Rabah Nait Oufella) shifts from a shy and quiet gaze to that of a hunter lurking her prey. Her infatuation with Adrien evolves over the second half of the film into a conflicting sense of both lust and hunger as she stares at his body from afar. After she bites off a boy’s lip at a party, she returns to her dorm to find Adrien awake. Although Adrien is openly gay, Justine feels an intimate connection with him enough to feel slightly vulnerable regarding what he thinks is her new “kink.” This lust and hunger she has for Adrien reach their climax as they have sex. In order to restrain herself from taking a bite out of Adrien, who tries to calm her down, she bites into her own arm in an act of both self-harm and self-restraint.
Justine’s sister Alex holds her hand throughout most of her coming of age hurdles in the film. She too had to come to terms with her own cannibalistic cravings when she left home. Alex has managed to balance both her social life and her cannibalism by sneaking off to an isolated highway where she jumps in front of cars hoping to get some fresh carnage. Unlike Alex, Justine doesn’t want to give in to leading a double life. We watch as she actively tries her best to stay in control when we watch her have sex with Adrien. Alex on the other hand finds it much harder to suppress her urges. After the two sisters get into a very public fight, Justine invites her to stay in her room. When she wakes up the next morning, she finds Adrien dead, half of his leg missing and covered in blood. Alex in a euphoric daze is found sitting in the kitchen glossy-eyed and helpless. By now the roles are switched, Justine must help Alex bathe herself and turn herself in to the police.
There is no catharsis in Raw for any of the characters. Nor does the film glorify gore or cannibalism. This is a film that allows the characters to be authentic in their pursuit of authentic self-expression with a clear acknowledgment of its costs. In the final scene, we learn with Justine that cannibalism runs in the family, and it is up to Justine to find a way to manage it moving forward. While consuming human flesh gave Justine an opportunity to grow and find agency in her body and in her actions, it became her responsibility as an adult to learn how to cope with it. Her mother was able to do something about it, and her sister couldn’t. As the credits roll we ask ourselves: what is the relationship between feminine agency and our bodily impulses? And where exactly does the agency lie?