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.