Plot A veterinary college in Belgium, present day. En route to her first day of university, virginal vegetarian Justine blanches after nearly eating a meatball hidden in her mash at a roadside diner. Her strict diet is soon broken, however: during a college hazing ritual, she eats rabbit liver at the instigation of her older sister Alexia, and soon finds she has a taste for meat, travelling off campus with gay roommate Adrien to eat a kebab. When an accident with some scissors occurs while Alexia attempts to give Justine a Brazilian wax, Justine gobbles up her sister’s severed finger. After they leave the emergency room, Alexia flings herself in front of a car, prompting a fatal crash, whose victims she begins to feed on. Justine can barely repress her carnivorous impulses when she tumbles into bed with Adrien. Alexia humiliates Justine when the latter becomes drunk at a party, and the two gnaw at one another in a bloody catfight. The following day, Justine wakes next to Adrien to find that his thigh has been feasted on, and that Alexia is the culprit. She is next seen visiting her sister in jail with their parents. Later, her father, baring a scarred torso, reveals that cannibalism runs in the family on her mother’s side (adapted from Pinkerton).
Film Note Julia Ducournau’s acclaimed body horror Grave/Raw, made its debut at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival and subsequently won the International Film Critics’ Award. Raw’s international success can be attributed to the controversy surrounding it: at the film’s Midnight Mass screening at the Toronto International Film Festival its graphic scenes resulted in some viewers passing out and even requiring medical attention. In what follows, Raw will be examined in relation to the New French Extremism Movement, women’s filmmaking in France, and the representation of female sexuality in French cinema.
The New French Extremism The New French Extremism is a twenty-first-century movement consisting of several French arthouse films. It seeks to create an intellectual context for the type of content traditionally found in the slasher or exploitation film. The films share territory with what has been dubbed ‘torture porn’, a sub-genre of the horror film that “ha[s] attracted attention for [its] graphic and confrontational images of sex and violence” (Kendall & Horeck 1). James Quandt defines these films as “determined to break every taboo” and are concerned with “cannibalism, sadomasochism and incest” (18). Critics claim that a key feature of the New French Extremism is the intention of the filmmaker to challenge how much violence and inhumanity the audience can endure. For instance, Michael Haneke has stated that he wants to “rape his viewers into a critical spectatorship”, forcing them out of their complicit desensitisation to images of violence (qtd. in Frey 152). Similarly, Gaspar Noé has asserted that he is “‘happy to see some people walk out during [his] film’” (qtd. in Kendall & Horeck 6).
Ducournau has noted that in social anthropology, cannibalism is one of the “three taboos”: which are “murder, incest, and cannibalism” (qtd. in Aftab). So, understandably, the consumption of human flesh is a subject explored by New French Extremism. While we are encouraged to sympathise with Justine – due to her status as our protagonist, her troubled relationships, and her social isolation – we still witness her commit violent acts onto others and herself. One instance is her fight with Alexia, which involves chewing at each other’s arms to draw blood, and the biting off an unsuspecting peer’s bottom lip while kissing him. Furthermore, Alexia causes more than one death in the film; we see her deliberately causing a car crash to feast on the brains of the driver and she is also responsible for Adrien’s death at the film’s climax. Alexia is shown in a catatonic state after feasting on Adrien and this links Raw with the controversial New French Extremism film Martyrs (2008), in which a group of people commit acts of torture on young women with the belief that if they survive the women will achieve a state of euphoric transcendence. As such, in Raw, the violent moments are “not violence for the sake of violence”, or “pure exhibitionism” (Laird) but rather a “gesture of freedom” (Ducournau qtd. in Holway). As in the New French Extremism films more generally, violence here constitute an act of refusal, radicalism, and rebellion.
Raw’s cinematic techniques and their effect on the viewers could also be likened to other films of the New French Extremism. In Irréversible/Irreversible (2002), a shocking opening sequence using a shaky handheld camera and a continuous low-frequency sound creates a feeling of nausea and later in the film an unflinching long take of a nine-minute rape scene refuses the to allow the spectator to turn away from the harrowing violence. Noé’s film disgusted and upset viewers, with many considering it one of the most unwatchable films ever made. Though not as upsetting in its severity as the violent images of Noé, Raw features scenes of a discomforting, ‘cringe-worthy’ nature, which cause the audience to collectively wince and hide their faces from the screen. As is typical in a body horror film, Ducournau challenges her viewers by showing images such as half-eaten human carcasses, a severed finger, wax being tugged at the hair of a sensitive bikini line, and a painful rash being peeled from a stomach with tweezers like the aftermath of a vicious sunburn. Ducournau has stated that she endeavoured to use “the triviality of the body” as an entry point to aid the spectator to relate to Justine because we can all relate to “the grossness of the body” (qtd. in Holway).
However, as aforementioned, Ducournau’s film gained notoriety at the Toronto International Film Festival because several patrons required medical attention. However, unlike Noé (who relishes this kind of reaction), Ducournau was shocked when told that audience members had fainted. She claimed that “it’s a shame for [her] work… [because] some people are going to think this movie is too hardcore for them and they won’t be able to handle it. And some are going to want to see torture porn or a gore fest and they are going to be disappointed. So no-one wins” (qtd. in Masters). Clearly then, for Ducournau, the confronting nature of the images of cannibalism and gore can be seen as less of a shock tactic and more as a way of presenting a human experience rather than a monstrous one.
The sex scene in Raw, while arguably graphic, is a non-sensationalist and non-glamorised depiction of the loss of virginity, often an awkward experience, and is shown from the female perspective. Sex, female sexuality and loss of virginity are topics which the prominent female auteur Catherine Breillat has explored. Her depictions can be allocated to the category of ‘French sexually explicit art cinema’, which Kelley Conway defines as “us[ing] explicit sex as a vehicle to chronicle, with profound cynicism, the power struggles between men and women” (463). This tendency can be seen in Breillat’s Romance (1999) and À ma sœur! /Fat Girl (2001), in which the sex is “absolutely central to a character’s identity and motivation, but it is nearly always difficult or even deadly” (Conway 463). In contrast, in Raw, regardless of Adrien taking Justine’s virginity (with hints throughout the movie that he is not a virgin), Justine is in control of the encounter and has autonomy over her desire and sexuality.
Perhaps it is the lack of desire to provoke disgust in the spectator which sets Ducournau apart from the New French Extremism directors such as Noé and Breillat. Another controversial New French Extremism film is the 2000 rape-revenge film Baise-Moi/Rape Me. James Quandt compares Baise-Moi to Breillat’s Romance and another cannibal film, Dans ma Peau/In My Skin (2002). Quandt claims that these films, all of which include graphic depictions of sex, sexual violence, and murder, present “an extreme vision of women driven to limits of compulsion, sexuality, or violence in their rejection of a world which attempts to constrain or degrade them” (20). While Ducournau’s film features similar themes, I suggest that the defining distinction between Raw and films like Irréversible, In My Skin and Baise-Moi, is that the latter films portray a lack of humanity, whereas Ducournau’s film asks: “Where is the humanity in this film?”. In Raw, we confront “a very human ‘monster’”, a cannibal, yes, but one who implores us to identify with her (Holway).
Women’s filmmaking in France In their 2001 study, Cinema and the Second Sex, Carrie Tarr and Brigitte Rollet examine French films made by women in the previous twenty years. They note that in the 1980s films directed by women made up only six per cent of French films, whereas by the 1990s this figure had risen to 14 per cent (3). This cumulative trend is verified by a 2017 study conducted by the Centre National du Cinéma et de l’image Animée (CNC) which outlines that in 2017, 23 per cent of films made in France were by female directors (CNC). One way in which the profile of French women’s filmmaking has been raised is the appraisal of the ‘first film’, with instances like the Louis Delluc prize which added a subsection for first films in 1999. Notably, Ducournau won this accolade with Raw in 2017.
It is important to note that Ducournau is a graduate of the prestigious Paris film school La Fémis, which, according to Rollet, perpetuates “the tradition of an auteur cinema”, and allows many female directors to “opt for certain types of story” (945). Tarr and Rollet state that “most of the films directed by women explore issues relating to women, often from a woman’s point of view” (1). These issues are often presented through the narrative of the coming-of-age film, a popular genre within women’s filmmaking in France. Female directors such as Céline Sciamma, another La Fémis graduate, and Catherine Breillat have focused on “the figure of the young girl in the process of becoming a woman”, which Ducournau also explores through her 16-year-old protagonist Justine (Rollet 960). Tarr and Rollet believe that coming-of-age narratives often “represent the problematic rites of passage of girls towards adult femininity”; a sexual awakening or discovery; the introduction to drugs and/or alcohol; and learning about one’s place in the world. Sciamma has forged a career out of representing and exploring the complexities of adolescence, particularly for young women. Her most well-known films Naissance des Pieuvres/Water Lilies (2007), Tomboy (2011) and Bande de Filles/Girlhood (2014) all tackle the issues of sexuality, gender identity and girl gangs. Sciamma’s films largely deal with ‘fitting in’ and in Raw Justine navigates this issue throughout her first year of veterinary college, in which she not only experiences the discovery of her cannibalism, but also the difficulty of making friends and adjusting to a new world away from home.
One way in which Ducournau presents the ‘rites of passages’ experienced in adolescence is through the extreme ‘hazing’ rituals inflicted on first-year students by older students; this includes having animal blood poured onto them, forcing them to leave their dorms, throwing their mattresses outside, and at one point even forcing Justine to wear a diaper in a lecture. Justine’s older sister Alexia also takes part in the humiliating initiations, causing Justine to feel isolated, lonely and cast out,; feelings which are common in coming-of-age films. Ducournau has spoken about “recreating a form of society outside of society”, in which the horrific hazing rituals despite being accepted by the students, are the most “monstrous” behaviours (Holway).
Female sexuality In Raw, Justine watches her gay roommate Adrien play football and as her desire reaches its peak, the camera fetishises Adrien’s topless body by only showing it through fast-cut shots. Like many other female-directed French films (including Houda Benyamina’s feature debut Divines (2016)), the gendered roles which we expect in cinema are subverted here, with women shown “as active agents of desire […] and men as objects of a female gaze” (Tarr & Rollet 83). Justine’s desire for Adrien culminates in her loss of virginity to him, another ‘rite of passage’ which is employed in many coming-of-age narratives. However, although Justine’s sexual encounter with Adrien could be mistaken as a pivotal moment in her adolescence, the most formative moments of her first year at the veterinary college are those of her first acts of cannibalism; such as the very first time Justine eats human flesh, which happens to be Alexia’s severed finger, following an accident brought about by Alexia’s insistence on administering a bikini wax on Justine.
Guy Austin theorises horror cinema as “centring on the (female) body”, and Raw is certainly primarily concerned with Justine’s body, linking it with an underlying theme of female sexuality (671). As mentioned, women filmmakers in French cinema – especially with the coming-of-age film – often focus on female protagonists and their discovery and exploration of their sexuality. Raw’s Justine can be seen as a subversion of the typical gendered trope of the adolescent girl in French cinema, one that generally frames this girl as “an object of sexual desire designed to titillate the male voyeur and circumvent the challenge and threat of adult female sexuality” (Tarr & Rollet 37). This trope can be seen in Brigitte Bardot’s portrayal of Juliette in Et Dieu… créa la femme! /And God Created Woman (1956), the role that propelled Bardot into stardom and established her status as a ‘sex symbol’, and which shows the “Lolita-like child-woman” (Tarr & Rollet 37) subjected to the male gaze. Her childlike and carefree personality is highlighted from the opening sequence with her nude sunbathing through to the film’s climactic ‘mambo dance’ scene (Tarr & Rollet 37). Though it can be argued that Juliette treats men as she pleases and displays autonomy over her sexuality and independence, she is ultimately ‘punished’ by the men in her life for her sexual liberation via an attempted murder and a reluctant ‘settling down’ into marriage with Antoine. Her body is also consistently sexualised and fetishised by the men in the film, most notably throughout the dancing sequence. All this is in direct contrast to the representation of the women in Raw.
The first time we meet Alexia, as Justine finally finds her sister in the underground party she has been dragged to by her hazing ‘elders’, she is twerking. In a later scene, Alexia pulls down her trousers and teaches Justine how to urinate standing up. In the pivotal bikini wax scene, we are shown Justine’s body, not in the sexualised manner that we are used to seeing women’s bodies, but with a close-up of her pubic hair being pulled. Ducournau intends to get the audience to relate to Justine through her body: “[T]he fluid and the hair and the smell and everything” speak to “an intimacy that belongs to all of us” and for this reason, we are consistently shown our protagonist’s body in unconventionally ‘undesirable’ scenarios (Holway). This depiction of a female body that is not sexualised, nor seductive or appealing, is a direct subversion of the fetishised and objectified images of women we are often presented with.In the scene where Justine dances to a sexually-charged song with explicit lyrics, and smears her lipstick on her mirror and kisses it, there are no men present and this is indicative of Justine taking ownership of her sexuality.
In this Raw is attuned to the overt feminist impulse of 1970s female-directed French cinema that challenged these representations by presenting “complex, autonomous female characters unwilling or unable to be contained within the conventional couple and anxious to explore their own subjectivity and sexuality” (54). Ducournau portrays this through Justine’s desire for Adrien and her loss of virginity to him despite his homosexuality. But it is difficult to separate Justine’s sexual desire for Adrien with her cannibalistic desire; blood begins to trickle from her nose as she watches his muscular body, and when she has sex with him, she tells him ‘it’s bad’, suggesting that her cravings for Adrien are not merely lust. Therefore, we could infer that Justine’s descent into cannibalism throughout the film is synonymous with the unleashing of her sexual desire. However, Ducournau has stated that while the two are linked, this intersection is ultimately down to the “gesture of freedom” that Justine’s cannibalism enabled and which allows her to be “more in touch with her feelings and desire”. According to Ducournau, “cannibalism unleashes sexuality, but sexuality does not unleash cannibalism” (Holway). So, while Justine’s desire for flesh influences her sexual desires, or at least the realisation of them, the most defining moments of the film are those which relate to her cannibalism – the very first time she tastes human flesh, it is her sister’s and thus not a sexual act at all.
Raw has been promoted as a coming-of-age cannibal story and misunderstood as a gratuitous gore-fest. However, the film can be located within the canon of women’s filmmaking in France, a category which has gained increasing traction over the past thirty years and has also been recognised in the awards system. Ducournau’s representation of the rites of passages in female adolescence can be compared to films by Breillat or Sciamma, but ultimately Ducournau is interested in ‘humanising’ a young woman who is also a cannibal. The representations of violence and gore are a typical trait of body horror and may be likened to the graphic images of the New French Extremism films, such as Martyrs or In My Skin. However, unlike these films, and in contrast to the publicity surrounding its reception, Raw does not simply rely on shock tactics to appeal or to divide its audience. The film’s underlying themes have their roots in a liberated female sexuality and the feminist movement, and signal an ongoing political commitment by young filmmakers to finding searching ways of expressing gendered experience in contemporary France.
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Written by Hannah Rosina Holway (2019); edited by Dimitrios Tamvakakis (2020), Queen Mary, University of London
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