Cannibal Women Are Having A Moment On Screen
Cannibalism has become a gratifyingly gross metaphor for self-awakening on screen.
When Julia Ducournau’s twitchily terrific horror movie Raw rolled into the Toronto International Film Festival last September, it made headlines for causing people to pass out during screenings. It was enough to cement its already blossoming fame as a future gorehound fave, which began a few months earlier at the Cannes Film Festival, where people up and left during the scene in which Justine (Garance Marillier), the veterinary school freshman at its heart, has her first brush with cannibalism by way of a severed finger she finds irresistible.
But the rough reputation Raw’s been saddled with isn’t really earned, which is clear on rewatching. Ducournau’s feral spin on a college coming-of-age story isn’t nearly as eye-proddingly hardcore as 2008's Martyrs or 2001's Trouble Every Day or some of the other more notorious entries in the whole New French Extremity tradition Raw owes a debt to. It’s got nothing, gross-out-wise, on the Stateside torture porn trend that encompasses the Hostels and the Saws either.
Raw’s bursts of intensity are memorable not because of the level of carnage they feature, but courtesy of the concepts they showcase. It’s repulsive not just because it depicts something that people instinctively recoil from, but because the movie demands that you experience it alongside its doe-eyed heroine as she reluctantly finds herself shifting toward being a predator.
The standard sloppiness of a first year away at college gets punctuated by increasingly explicit arts of consumption — Justine gets a truly unfortunate bikini wax, crushes confusingly on her gay roommate Adrien (Rabah Nait Oufella), and starts down a path of eating people. There’s a liberating grotesquerie to Raw’s scenes of its female lead sinking her teeth into someone else’s flesh — monster, not victim — like a horror movie answer to the boundary-pushing body comedy of Comedy Central's Broad City.
Cannibalism is fundamentally resistant to being sexed up. Vampires can be sultry and alluring right through their slurping of someone’s blood, lending themselves to metaphors for addiction or parasitism — the idea of draining someone’s essence while leaving them relatively whole in other ways. Cannibalism is so inherently repellent that it can, as Ducournau discovered, make viewers faint. It’s taking the basic human experience of hunger and twisting it into something that’s so wrong, the using of others as food, as meat, with the most primal (and most hilariously unladylike) of me-before-you motives.
Flesh-eating also gets splashily (ew) icky in Victor Fresco’s Santa Clarita Diet, Netflix’s otherwise mixed bag of a comedy in which Drew Barrymore plays Sheila Hammond, a wife, mother, and realtor turned member of the undead. The same goes for Colm McCarthy’s smart rethinking of the zombie apocalypse genre, The Girl With All the Gifts, with Sennia Nanua as its title character, Melanie, an adorable kid who also has a vicious hankering for live things.
Cannibalistic female leads are having a miniature moment on screen (following in the footsteps of their returning predecessor iZombie), and there’s a giddiness to how unapologetically off-putting their appetites are — they are fundamentally destructive, unable to conform to normalcy, their cravings uncontainable.
We've seen the ravenous revenant masses on AMC's The Walking Dead and its spinoff, and there are the human-consuming underclasses in the upcoming movies Slack Bay and The Bad Batch. But there’s something distinctive about the way Raw and Santa Clarita Diet and The Girl With All the Gifts couch their cannibalism in a female perspective.
Traditional perceptions of femininity, after all, have always been linked to a denial of desire — to physical urges being unseemly, whether for sex or food. Scarlett O'Hara is made to down a meal before going out to a barbecue because real ladies are supposed to maintain the illusion that they don’t need to do anything as unseemly as eating a full meal. Delicacy means pretending you don’t fart or shit or require sustenance, that you are complete as is, able to exist forever on a few spritzes of refreshment, like an air plant.
But Justine, Sheila, and Melanie don’t just have appetites, they have appetites of the most transgressive and confrontational kind. In the scene in Raw that sent so many festivalgoers running for cover, the aforementioned finger belongs to Justine’s unpredictable older sister Alexia (Ella Rumpf). She loses the appendage in a home grooming accident that’s better left to unfold on screen than described. While calling for an ambulance, Justine retrieves the stray digit from the floor, then gives in to an impulse to suck the blood off the thing herself. She nibbles at the ragged edges a bit, before finally giving in and devouring it entirely, all while Alexia is passed out nearby.
It’s revoltingly intimate, the way the sequence tries to make you think about the feeling of still-warm skin and splintered bone against the tongue. But it’s also a joyously fucked-up twist on the familiar scenario of a woman giving in to the compulsion to binge on something she shouldn’t, like Miranda (Cynthia Nixon) eating that chocolate cake out of the garbage on Sex and the City — only this time, it's human flesh.
Raw is all about unruly feminine appetites, cannibalism being the foremost but far from the only one Justine experiences as she test-drives semi-independent life. Her transformation from virginal vegetarian is set off by a hazing ritual in which she’s made to swallow an uncooked rabbit kidney, but it’s enabled by the freedom of freshman year away from home, an unmoored state that's depicted with alternately surreal and grounded detail.
It’s not for nothing that Justine’s urges to eat and to fuck develop in parallel. The scene in which she pops her cherry is a passionate but wincingly wolfish encounter; in an effort to channel her instinct to bite, Justine ends up sinking her teeth into her own arm. Her expression of self-discovery is presented as something alarming, old fears of unchecked female desire made literal — freed from repression, Justine finds herself with society-rupturing hungers.
Which is the case for Santa Clarita Diet’s Sheila as well — despite the show's uneven tone, the key joke comes from juxtaposing abstentious Californian clean living against bodies gone thoroughly and messily out of control, from the explosive vomiting that comes with Sheila's transformation to the pile of entrails she crouches over at the end of the first episode, entreating her loving husband Joel (Timothy Olyphant), "I really want to make this work.”
Being undead turns Sheila into a creature of id, and, loose toes and drooping eyeballs aside, she prefers it. She has more happiness, energy, and desire for sex post-transformation, merrily pursuing her own pleasure by pushing Joel's head below her beltline when she wants an orgasm. When a dickish coworker tries to pressure Sheila into an affair, she doesn’t opt for avoidance or try to finesse the situation with flattery or file a complaint with higher-ups, all the non-ideal choices countless women have had to decide between in similar situations — she just eats him.
Santa Clarita Diet is a “how Sheila got her gruesome groove back” saga, made richer by Joel’s more complicated emotional arc as he accompanies his wife on her adventure. He struggles, befuddled and increasingly distressed, to accommodate not just Sheila’s new sense of emancipation, but that it comes with a significant price, and that she doesn’t care.
Which is central to this cannibal lady subgenre — stories of liberation that comes at no cost go down easy because they trouble no one. But Justine and Sheila's self-exploration is dangerous, threatening to the existing order, something made even more explicit in The Girl With All the Gifts, in which the fate of humanity rests in Melanie’s hands. Or, really, her body.
In a world overtaken by brain-dead, fungus-infected “hungries,” Melanie is one of a group of hybrid children being studied by the remaining humans in hopes of a cure. She’s a sweet, smart little girl, the favorite student of her kind teacher (Gemma Arterton), but she, like the other children, is kept restrained by soldiers who refer to her as “it,” because the scent of unprotected human flesh can turn her into a rapacious force. She docilely submits to her imprisonment under a scientist (Glenn Close) who periodically dissects members of her class, because it’s what she knows.
It takes a fence breach for that to change forever, and for Melanie to be turned loose with a few of the survivors in the decimated outside landscape, where she comes into her own. The Girl With All the Gifts, which zipped through theaters but is very worth catching up with on demand, shows how Melanie’s mostly terrified fellow travelers come to trust her to control her cravings. But that’s not the point — the point is the way she begins to rethink how much she trusts them, and a set of relationships dependent on her making sacrifices in order to maintain the status quo.
She’s a striking figure, this cute kid capable of tearing out someone’s throat. If cannibalism is, in these stories, a grisly symbol for putting oneself first — to the point of being willing to nosh on other people to survive — then Melanie’s journey could be described as one of learning to embrace the nightmarish thing within.
Melanie’s a kind of extreme end-of-the-world sister to Raw’s Justine. Both are clever schoolgirls with extremely wayward hungers that can’t ever entirely be tamped down. But where Justine grapples with the horrific idea that her fulfillment can only ever come at the expense (and spare limbs) of others, Melanie gives it more meditative and unsettling consideration.
Then again, she, Justine, and Sheila are all different degrees of disturbing, these bloody-mouthed broads with their disruptive appetites — figures of female desire at its most gleefully threatening, demanding a big bite of the world and unconcerned with accommodating either the safety of others or the settled stomachs of anyone watching. They provide a visceral challenge to what it means for women on screen to be likable. They’re gruesome, but they’re a little glorious as well. Because hey, everybody’s got to eat.