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Cannibalism, the ultimate taboo, gets a fresh twist in 'Raw'

The future in the flesh

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Cannibalism, the ultimate taboo of human behavior, has had a colorful evolution in cinema. Driven by pathology, desire or desperation, cannibals became normalized with George Romero's Night of the Living Dead in 1968, a groundbreaking film that featured flesh-eating ghouls (which for some reason are now almost universally referred to as "zombies" in what has become a ubiquitous genre). The ghouls rose from the dead and consumed the living, creating a trope of post-apocalyptic survival that now characterizes the majority of zombie flicks.

The notion of cannibalism being practiced as a sort of "tribal" custom is explored in the fake documentary Cannibal Holocaust (1985), which famously inspired the filmmakers of The Blair Witch Project, who refined and catapulted the "found footage" genre. The act of cannibalism is also seen as a perversion or pathology, as in 1989's The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover, or 1991's The Silence of Lambs, and it seems that the more lofty a film's aesthetics, the more graphic its depiction of this forbidden hunger.

1982's Eating Raoul was a decadent send-up of Hollywood excess. In 1989, Bob Balaban's stylish cult hit Parents satirized the 1950s nuclear family. The Road, John Hilcoat's 2009 film adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's novel, portrays a desolate future of barren landscapes and starving drifters. In 2013's We Are What We Are, Jim Mickle (Stakeland) created a story of a rural family trying to resist their ancestral flesh-eating urges.

The French, sensual gourmands that they are, seem to relish cannibalism as a theme. Delicatessen, (1994) from the team of Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro (who also made City of Lost Children in 1995), is a futuristic French tale that is scarily prescient but also surreal and funny. Trouble Every Day, Claire Denis' 2001 feature, was controversial for its horrific sexual content but won many fans for its extreme vision.

The debut French-Belgian film Raw from director Julia Ducorneau is a fresh twist on the genre, more coming-of-age than horror (but plenty horrific). The film opens with Justine (Garrance Marillier, a pixieish, colt-limbed ingenue) having lunch with her parents before beginning her studies at veterinary college. The server at the cafeteria mistakenly puts meat in her potatoes; Justine gags and her mother gets angry. They're vegetarians! Justine moves into her dorm and meets her roommate, Adrien (Rabah Nait Oufella), a gay man. That first night, older students rush into first-year students' rooms and force them to attend a raucous rave party. An exhausted Justine runs into her sister Alexia (German actress Ella Rumpf, a luscious hybrid of Fairuza Balk and Guinevere Turner), a senior who's far more outgoing and sexually mature than Justine.

The first-year students undergo various hazing activities and rules, including one ritual forcing freshmen to eat rabbit kidneys. Justine refuses but her sister forces her, reminding her she needs to fit in. Oddly, this gives herbivorous Justine a sudden craving for meat (or maybe it's just adolescent rebellion). The first-years are also doused in animal blood, a prank that pays homage to another horrific coming-of-age narrative, Carrie, and this sets a surreal, disturbing tone that continues as Justine throws herself into her studies at this strangely oppressive school. She and Adrien develop an intimate bond, which helps protect Justine from her bullying classmates. She also starts to explore her sexuality, at her sister's urging, and a freak accident that occurs during that most sisterly of bonding rites, a bikini waxing, makes Justine aware that she has a hunger for human flesh. At first, this craving disgusts and confuses her. But she gets used to it, and also gamely takes part in dissection and other veterinary activities while her classmates look on in horror. Alexia tries to help Justine both cover up her secret and to coach her in managing it.

Justine's loss of virginity intensifies her cannibalistic desires; some astute viewers might wonder if all of this is somehow a metaphorical exploration. Justine's lust for blood is portrayed as sexual empowerment, akin to being responsible for her own orgasm. Certainly this has intriguing feminist overtones. But the film's artfully graphic scenes of gore (which reportedly had some audience members at the Toronto Film Festival seeking medical attention after fainting) seem to belie a symbolic reading. And if sex, forming identity, fraternizing with peers and breaking away from family are all key elements of the coming of age narrative, then cannibalism, being the ultimate taboo, is perhaps no more outrageous an expression of social maturity than, say, shooting heroin. Both urges are often portrayed as addictions, destabilizing forces in otherwise civil society.

In a scene towards the end of the film, students appear on a rooftop, wrapped in blankets, their tired faces ravaged by long laboratory sessions and late nights of partying, lit by the sunrise. It's an epiphanic moment, but it's not at all clear what they have realized.

The film has an alluring lexicon of moods: luminous, glossy, animalistic, pastoral. If not for the trail of corpses left behind, this might be reminiscent of other dreamy European coming-of-age narratives. But Ducorneau's vision is stark in its newness and depth. Raw challenges viewers to see beneath the gruesome surface and consider cannibalism's haunting social implications.

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