This critical essay has various arguments regarding the movie Raw from Julia Ducournau including the main reason why the director has chosen cannibalism as her main topic, the meanings of less and more flesh in the visual world and how horror movies as body genres affect the audience. I aim to explain the idea of a "being" and a "cannibal" and how these two things are different from or similar to each other in Ducournau's cinematic world. I make an overall critical reading using various reading materials from different critics including Deleuze, Guattari, Clover, Holland, Williams, and Rizzo. Finally, I explore the depths of the movies ending with the concept of abjection and what an abject really is by arguing and questioning its existence.
In this critical reading about the French-Belgian horror drama Raw by Julia Ducournau (2016) I will focus on various arguments we’ve covered throughout the semester and hopefully connect all of them together in a way that makes sense. The main reason I have chosen this movie, knowing it would be hard to criticise, is that the film Raw, and the director Julia Ducournau, touch so many ongoing debates. Julia Ducournau does it so delicately and gracefully that it may seem just like a regular horror movie for most people but once you get a glimpse of what it actually is it is impossible not to be impressed. It has so many levels that I was both amazed and confused while picking my reading materials for it because almost all of them fit. I will create a journey for this paper but especially for myself to fully understand how these elements come together so flawlessly and create a magical movie.
First of all I want to talk about the main reason why Ducournau has chosen cannibalism as her main subject. After reading Timothy Holland’s article about “virtual flesh”, I came to the conclusion that cannibalism is not “banal”. What I mean by that is the fact that bloodshed, dismemberment, interior organs are no longer an “ick factor” for current audiences. As the article discusses the more capitalists try to conceal the death penalties and executions, the more they find themselves a place on the silver screen. It is easier now than ever to make a scene that shows every single detail of a decapitation. Thanks to technological developments, those vivid and brutal images are no longer discreet but are available in every click. That is not the case at all for cannibalism. That being said the main reason that pushed Cronenberg to make less fleshy movies is the same reason Ducornau chooses cannibalism. There aren’t many materials or raw footage concerning a cannibal; also it has never been a preferable topic even in the horror movie genre. These two directors’ decisions may seem exact opposite of each other but really they have the same source of concern in creating an uncanny environment for audiences and at the same time keep them wondering and make them watch the movie with a sense of suspense. Cronenberg does it by not hiding the flesh, while Ducornau does it by making her character eat it. While the viewers have lost their appetite for regular fleshy, bloody movies, she comes with one that literally locks you to the screen. You don’t want to see it, but you can’t get your eyes off it. It is a desire so suppressed that you don’t even realise that you actually want to see it. Cannibalism is “The Taboo”, together with incest. Unacceptable and unspeakable. She breaks this taboo by putting it into a horror movie, a body genre like pornography and melodrama, as Carol Clover describes it. She says body genres are often described as low because “…the spectator is caught up in an almost involuntary mimicry of the emotion or sensation the body on the screen along with the fact that the body displayed is female.” This quote especially is important for me because while I was watching the movie, in the most intense scenes of cannibalism, I found myself biting my hand because of my nervousness, which is the exact same mimicry that I adopted from the ongoing spectacle. Also there is no doubt that both Raw, even if it’s only at the beginning, and other movies of the body genre concentrate on female victimisation. But the main argument here is that these dominated, punished women in horror movies are the ones the male viewers identify themselves with. Clover explains the situation as “…the horror film may present an interesting, and perhaps instructive, case of oscillation between masochistic and sadistic poles. This more recent argument has suggested that pleasure, for a masculine identified viewer, oscillates between identifying with the initial passive powerlessness of the abject and terrorised girl-victim of horror and her later, active empowerment.” She names this situation as “active power with bisexual components”. In Raw we watch our main character, Justine, who is a vegetarian girl that freaks out even by a little piece of meat found in her mashed potatoes. She is also a virgin and lives in her own perfect world. She grows an enormous appetite for human flesh after being forced to eat a rabbit’s kidney at her first week of veterinary college. She is transformed from a girl who totters in high heels and gets bullied almost every day to a woman who literally eats people. This intense transformation is a salvation for her; she became what she ought to become in order to survive. She went from passive “good girl” to active “bad girl” (as Linda Williams describes) by discovering her pleasures and acting on them both sexually and concerning her appetite. Of course for that reason, in the end she needs to be punished. As we can see in most of the horror movies of today, female victim generally encounters her “monster” in an act leading to sexual anticipation. She is either on the road to visit her boyfriend or she is waiting for him when the attack takes place unexpectedly. This is almost like a punishment for attempting to discover her own sexuality. It can even be read as a castration for the female protagonist. In Raw, towards the end of having sex with her openly gay roommate Adrian, Justine bites and chews on her own arm, which is her punishment to herself right at the moment of intercourse. That moment is a milestone for Justine; she discovers her deepest sexual and culinary desires sexually while Adrian becomes the perfect representation of Clover’s “active power with bisexual components”.
After reading the movie through approaches concerning gender and flesh, I want to focus more on the body, what it becomes and how it is related to the origins of the family. Justine’s change is both psychological and physical. She was never in touch with her body before college but through the process of discovering herself, trying out new identities, discovering her pleasures, at the end of the movie she is a complete different “being”. We can say she became something else, therefore she is a “becoming” in her own way. While talking about becomings, I can’t help but quote Deleuze and Guattari “…identity and subjectivity are tied to the body; and bodies in these films are mutable and open to change. These films suggest an ethological understanding of the body where bodies are not fixed and static but constantly changing with their environment and other bodies.” While becomings we watch are in constant change, we too are changing as spectators. We are constantly moving in our seats while watching them, so while they’re interacting with their bodies, we are interacting with ours and changing alongside with the characters. We become aware of our bodies and our own presences like never before. If you ask me, this is where the real magic lays. In theory we watch inhuman beings -it can be aliens, vampires or in this case cannibals- but as humans, we are so moved by them that we almost become them. So does this make us inhuman for a period of time? The suppressed desire to constantly move and change and most importantly to constantly “become”, is surfaced while watching them and I strongly think even for a while, we envy them mainly because we like the idea of being full of possibilities. We like the idea of a world without any categories. We want to be what we are even if that means eating people, we want to be that so badly. Maybe if we can be what we truly are, all the power systems that pressures us to be stereotypical will fall apart and we can finally be “free”. Rizzo puts it as “Without a fixed notion of the human, there can be no fixed notion of categories such as sexuality, gender, race and ethnicity. It is not that these categories do not exist, or that the politics associated with them can be solved in a purely conceptual way, but their parameters are not fixed in time. This further implies that if the categories of male and female are unstable and open to change, then they cannot be set up as binary opposites.” This is a very primal desire and by hiding them into horror movies directors activate that primal side of us. For me, this is the smartest move a filmmaker can and will ever do because horror movies are already body genres, so they move us but by putting such delicate psychological matters into them they catch us off guard. That is why Raw has impressed so many people in such short time. It whispered our primal drive into our ears and almost paralysed us by its reality.
Finally, I will take a look at the concept of abjection and its meaning in horror movies and in Raw. Us humans are abjects ourselves. We are obsoleted at the Oedipal stage and never succeed in being whole with any other entity ever again after leaving our mother’s womb. Maternal figure’s monstrousness in almost every horror movie represents both admiration and fear regarding the mother. We are defined by our mother in theory and in reality. We need to be separated from her but we need her to constantly draw the line as to who we are. Creed says “abject draws the line between human and non-human.” By showing us the abject horror movies work as reminders of humanity. We watch the movies, confront with the abject (bodily fluids, monsters, dead bodies) and remember the line that we can’t cross in real life. Horror movies take on the duty of a mother as if they need to get us in check and prevent us from losing our sense of borders. They do it by using the advantages of the genre and its subtext that every single person on Earth knows. If there is a representation of a monster in the horror movie that is an absolute “no”. You can’t become that, you can’t resemble that, and you can’t even put too much thought in that. That is “THE MONSTER”. End of the story. From this perspective if horror movies act like our mothers, it is inevitable that the main characters are female. We identify with them and they define us by showing what they experienced. What is interesting in Raw is that, the monster is also a female, in fact it is a mother. The mother. Until the end of the movie we accept the fact that Justine and her sister are troubled teens and they need to be cured, and if not should be eliminated from the society. What we don’t know is after Justine’s cannibal sister eats her roommate’s leg and kills him, the director reveals that their vegetarian mother is a cannibal from the beginning and slowly and constantly eats their father piece by piece. This means they never fully “rejected” their mother, they still live in a shared identity with her, so they never got to the Oedipal stage. They are not abjects, nor the mother. By revealing the ending like this, Ducornau implies that if they are not abjects, we cannot define ourselves from their wrongs and inhumanity because there is no abject to draw the line between human and non-human in this movie. She is saying that it is “normal”. She doesn’t give us the chance to experience catharsis. We can’t draw the line especially after the father’s closing line, “This wasn’t your fault, nor your sister’s. She was different from the beginning, me and your mother couldn’t find a cure, later I guess she just got used to what she is. (Opens up his shirt and reveals all of his bite marks) Don’t worry dear, you too will find a way.”
Making a horror movie that tells a story of a cannibal family is a hard task to begin with, but ending the movie by not giving the audience the cathartic experience it should give, and indicating that being a “monster” is the normal thing in everyday life and that you should accept who you are and find a way to live with it is almost impossible. Ducornau does it exquisitely with Raw. At the end of the movie the audience feels completely meaningless. All of our understandings about horror genre and becomings have changed forever. Ducornau took it to the next level and I hope to see more movies that have the same depth as Raw in the future.
Linda Williams (1991) Film Bodies: Gender, Genre, and Excess, Film Quarterly, Vol. 44, No.4, pp. 2-13 Published by University of California Press
Teresa Rizzo (2012), Deleuze and Film: A Feminist Introduction, London: Continuum. 208 pp
Timothy Holland (2017) Cronenberg’s anesthetics (virtual flesh), New Review of Film and Television Studies, 15:2, 141-151, DOI: 10.1080/17400309.2017.1303234