By Cody Corrall
In the glow of her dorm room’s mini-fridge, a young med student named Justine (Garance Marillier) takes out a raw chicken breast. She stares at it for a moment and smells it before giving in to the insatiable urge to eat it whole and without grace. It is disgusting, animalistic and deeply unsettling.
In the same primal way she devours raw meat, Justine will consume her sister’s severed finger, a college boy’s bottom lip and even a portion of her own arm.
Justine is not like other girls, she’s a cannibal.
And she’s in good company. In addition, to Julia Ducournau’s “Raw” (2016), films like Claire Denis’ “Trouble Every Day” (2001) and Karyn Kusama’s “Jennifer’s Body” (2009) exemplify a growing collection of horror films made by women that center on a female protagonist who craves human flesh.
These films flip the script on patriarchal ideologies that make up a lot of genre films — women who are powerless because they’re sexless or villainous because they’re promiscuous, for example — and instead champion women as barbaric, complicated monsters. Women aren’t the virgin sacrifices in these films, they’re the ones with the agency over their own flesh — and they use it to satiate their carnal desires.
Oftentimes in these films, a woman’s relationship to her cannibalistic impulses are in tandem with her sexuality. For Justine in “Raw,” her sexual coming of age directly parallels her coming into her own as a monster: she loses her virginity like an animal, preys on boys at parties as if they were meals and leaves her college hookups with a little less meat on their bones.
“These films flip the script on patriarchal ideologies that make up a lot of genre films — women who are powerless because they’re sexless or villainous because they’re promiscuous, for example — and instead champion women as barbaric, complicated monsters.”
In “Trouble Every Day,” Coré (Béatrice Dalle) uses her sexuality to lure her victims, dragging them to the grass like a bloodthirsty succubus on land. This dynamic is only emphasized when she reunites with Shane (Vincent Gallo), who has the same urges she has, resulting in a relationship fueled equally by sex and violence. It’s interesting to note that while Coré’s sexuality is an asset to feeding her hunger, Shane’s hunger is a detriment to his sex life and pushes him away from his innocent wife.
The traditional relationship between sex and violence in horror is often transactional rather than complimentary. A female protagonist who has sex will rarely survive, and if she does, the shame and repression of sex is something that will follow her forever like a curse. Sex often manifests as a villain while purity and virginity are the guiding light in the darkness.
But films like “Raw” and “Trouble Every Day,” are, to some extent, examples of New French Extremity. Coined in 2004 by James Quandt in “Flesh & Blood: Sex and violence in recent French cinema,” New French Extremity exemplifies relationships between sex and violence in cinema that vary from established norms.
New French Extremity was intended to be a pejorative term because of its likeness to American exploitation films, but filmmakers initially deemed as New French Extremists — Claire Denis, Catherine Breillat, François Ozon, Gaspar Noé, among others — are acclaimed precisely for their unconventional and revisionist depictions of sex and violence on-screen.
These depictions are even more interesting under a feminist horror framework, where archaic gender politics are combatted, parodied or ignored altogether and instead identify sex and violence as sources of immense power for young women rather than their assailants.
In “Desublimating monstrous desire: the horror of gender in new extremist cinema,” Lisa Coulthard and Chelsea Birks emphasize this notion. “More than merely undermining the gendered conventions of [the] horror genre, new extremism self-reflexively engages with its tropes and reveals them to be masking an underlying terror far more difficult to pin down, an indeterminable sexual excess that refuses to be re-repressed.”
“The women in these films are akin to gods or demons — and they’re not particularly concerned with the difference. They often act on impulse and without malice because they are monsters, but they are not entirely stripped of their humanity either.”
Among the films in this pseudo-genre, it’s Karyn Kusama’s “Jennifer’s Body” that critiques the outdated gender politics in horror in the most direct and explicit way. Jennifer is used as a virgin sacrifice by members of a sad indie band, but it backfires because she wasn’t a virgin after all. Instead, the ritual turns Jennifer into a demon who feasts on the flesh of boys.
Jennifer uses her confident sexuality to kill and feed, which in turn makes her that much more desirable. It’s a perfect ouroboros of sex as violence and violence as sex.
“I’m a god,” she says, moments after burning the tip of her tongue with a lighter.
The women in these films are akin to gods or demons — and they’re not particularly concerned with the difference. They often act on impulse and without malice because they are monsters, but they are not entirely stripped of their humanity either. They are going through the motions of humanity — high school, college, adulthood — and are bestowed with carnal urges and no real moral code.
Instead of being boiled down to beacons of purity or purveyors of evil, female cannibals in film are rejecting the boxes altogether to make way for liberated, complicated and disgusting women in horror.