Nothing is more basic than the need for food, and yet for us humans, this need is never basic. Food straddles the uncertain border between the animal and the social, and what we eat, how, and how much is saturated with significance. Who we are and where we stand with others — both other humans and other animals — is expressed through appetite and consumption. Indeed, a fundamental change in how we ate occasioned a fundamental change in the kind of animals we are: the prehumans' decision to start cooking their food is what made it possible for our brains to develop as they did.
For contemporary humans, disordered eating is so ubiquitous — about 75 percent of American women ages 25 to 45 report an unhealthy relationship with food or their own bodies — that the idea of an untroubled human appetite is almost inconceivable. The British psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott once observed that "disturbances of appetite are common in psychiatric illnesses, but the full importance of eating is not recognized."
It is strange to be a creature with needs at once so simple and so incomprehensible.
This March, French filmmaker Julia Ducournau's controversial new movie Raw will hit theaters in the United States. There are rumors that audiences walked out at festival screenings. Others passed out and required medical assistance. Affectionately described as a "cannibal coming of age movie," Raw tells the story of studious, cautious sixteen-year-old Justine (Garance Marillier) in her first weeks of veterinary school, where she navigates new social expectations, new academic demands, and an unrelenting new appetite.
The school turns out to be an isolated, brutal society, with grueling hazing rituals, forced binge drinking, daily cruelties inflicted by her older sister, and unrestricted access to animal cadavers. Justine cannot quite make herself belong. At the first hazing, she consumes a raw liver and promptly develops a bright, scaly rash that she itches urgently and privately under the covers in her bed. Against her classmates, Justine makes a case for vegetarianism by arguing that animals and humans suffer pain in the same way. But by aligning herself with the animals, she only alienates her human peers. In a "seven minutes in heaven"–type scenario, shy Justine winces at her partner's embrace, and then bites his lip off.
Raw is just the newest film to join a small subgenre of serious movies about cannibalism. While the vast majority of cannibal movies—and there are hundreds—are nauseatingly graphic, cheaply made exploitation films, this extreme premise has been put to subtler use in films that hardly count as horror. These movies tend to be slow and thoughtful, aesthetically arresting, punctuated by only rare eruptions of gore and violence. The cannibals of these films are self-aware, curious individuals, with familiarly disordered relationships with what they want to eat, unable to embrace their appetite and yet unable, or unwilling, to ignore it. And strikingly, these young, searching cannibals also tend to be young, searching women.
Watching these films all together, it is striking how much they resist easy thematic summary. No two cannibals are alike. Some of these films involve women learning what they want and learning to embrace it; some involve women unraveling under the weight of envy and the need to have something they cannot; some allegorize the logical trajectory of capitalism and consumerism, while others explore the conditions of female desire under patriarchy. Perhaps one common thread is the idea, or fantasy, that human needs can feel frighteningly unmanageable, as though they might be so strange or so excessive as to have no place in the human world. These cannibals tend either to be internally conflicted—ridden with shame or guilt or nausea—or to stand in conflict with the rest of the world—isolated, on the run, or simply silent.
It seems clear that our stories of love and sex and death should display more diversity than unity, if they are to reflect the diversity of human experience. Why shouldn't the stories of our appetites be the same?
But if Winnicott is right that the role of eating in human life remains, at bottom, a mystery, and if therefore every person, family, and culture must manage their humanity by managing what, how, and who they eat, then we should expect movies about cannibals to reflect exactly that much variety. It seems clear that our stories of love and sex and death should display more diversity than unity, if they are to reflect the diversity of human experience. Why shouldn't the stories of our appetites be the same?
Last year Nicolas Winding Refn released The Neon Demon about a young new model, Jesse (Elle Fanning), navigating a glossy Los Angeles of feral jealousies and warped desires. Homely makeup artist Ruby (Jena Malone) wants to have her, while two blonde gazelles with gaping eyes and jutting bones, Sarah (Abbey Lee) and Gigi (Bella Heathcote), want to have what she has, whatever she's got that's making the fashion industry lose its collective mind for her. When Jesse refuses to yield to their desires [spoiler alert!] they kill and eat her.
In We Are What We Are (2013), Rose (Julia Garner) and Iris (Ambyr Childers) play the teenage daughters in an isolated family of cannibals, a family following an ancient tradition that involves the women taking care of the slaughtering and cooking at the behest of the men. The girls' father puts them to the task when their mother dies of Kuru disease (a neurodegenerative disorder resembling Parkinson's that comes from eating too many human body parts). Rose and Iris whisper their misgivings in secret They wonder not whether what they do is right, but whether it's what they really want. Yet when escape is finally possible, the girls do not just leave, and they do not just kill their father: they devour him, still alive, straight off his bones. It turns out, then, that the girls did not want to give up their appetites altogether, they just wanted out from under their father's rules, from his idea of what their appetites should be.
The best of the recent female cannibal films is Claire Denis's uncategorizable Trouble Every Day (2002). The film involves two storylines that cross over only intermittently: one involves Dr. Shane Brown (Vincent Gallo) and his strained, hollow relationship with his new bride; the other involves Coré (Béatrice Dalle) and her unmanageable compulsion to consume human flesh. The film is moody and patient, heavy with a Tindersticks soundtrack and modern malaise, an atmosphere twice disrupted by acts of extreme, stomach-churning carnage.
The most arresting, moving, and unwatchable scene involves Coré and her lover/victim: what begins as a sweet and affectionate tryst and then becomes playfully combative finally transitions seamlessly into an act of murder at once brutal and loving, childish and psychopathic. Coré rips flesh and then kisses the wound with motherly sweetness; she embraces her victim and then bats at him like a cat with a still-living mouse, as though she were trying to wake him back up to play with her, as though she were angry with him for not giving up what she was looking for, as though the simple fact of his remaining separate were tearing her apart. Dalle's wordless performance in this scene is breathtaking, for she makes these transitions between love and pleasure and fury and torture not just true to the character but familiar to us. Immanuel Kant defined the sexual impulse as "an appetite for another human being." This seems to be exactly what Coré knew and enacted, but ultimately couldn't live with.
It is bizarre and monstrous to be suddenly gripped by an appetite for flesh. To this extent these characters can seem either super- or sub-human, something other than us. But it is familiar and very human to feel overwhelmed by need and unable to manage it. When Coré implodes under the pressure of her needs — to feel, to feel connected — or when Justine responds to her new desire by drinking, and hiding, and crying at wanting so much, this is a kind of excess that we know. Having a real need can be a heavy burden. How strange to be a creature that feels its own needs as so fraught. How liberating it would be to be able to embrace them. This is why, when Justine first yields to her appetite, and the music swells and the camera zooms in, the scene is not only horrifying and unspeakably disgusting: it is also celebratory. If you can bring yourself to watch, you see a young woman finally recognizing the importance of eating, and of holding true to her desires.
And yet, even when yielding to cannibalism is presented as emancipatory, as in Raw or We Are What We Are, there is a cost, and that cost is real human relationships: Justine ends up hurting the one person she might really love, Rose and Iris have to leave everything they know, Sarah hardens and Gigi self-destructs, Coré self-immolates. In another French film that pushes the premise to its logical conclusion—In My Skin (2002)—the possibility of relationships is lost entirely, and cannibalism becomes self-cannibalism.
Despite these films' thematic differences, something common to them is that the worlds in which the characters exist are pictured as worlds to be rejected, whether the world is patriarchy or the nuclear family or consumer society or late-stage global capitalism. The films suggest, simply, that these worlds are not meeting our real needs, that these are not worlds for human bonding. And by placing women front and center, these films indicate that women bear the burden of these broken worlds in a particularly fraught way: at the level of desire, of knowing what they might need or what would really satisfy.
Francey Russell writes about art and film and is a Ph.D. candidate in philosophy at the University of Chicago.