flesh, sex, and hunger:
the female body and cannibalism in the lure and raw
By Cassi Guerra
Agnieszka Smoczyńska’s The Lure serves as a unique blend of musical and horror to retell Hans Christian Andersen’s classic tale, The Little Mermaid, while Julia Ducournau’s coming-of-age horror Raw examines the transition of a young vegetarian to her first year of veterinary school. In both Smoczyńska’s and Ducournau’s films, viewers are treated to unique explorations of the young woman’s changing body and its unglamorous reality, as well as the frightening link between sexuality and cannibalism in the context of adolescence.
In both The Lure and Raw, women are depicted in stark contrast to mainstream films, in which the female body is often glamorized in compliance with the “male gaze.” Too often, the bodies of girls on the cusp of womanhood are framed in an idealistic lens: dewy skin, full lips, and “daisy-fresh,” as in the 1997 film adaptation of Lolita. These depictions, however, fail to represent the reality of adolescence and all the awkward, sticky inelegance of the body at this phase of a woman’s life. In The Lure, Silver and Golden are two young mermaids who have come ashore, stumbling into the club scene of 1980’s Warsaw. The exoticness of their being mermaids lands the girls a gig singing and stripping alongside a resident band even though the two are, as the audience is frequently reminded, “just kids.” Despite the efforts of the film’s male characters to glamorize the girls in a way typical of popular cinema, Smoczyńska deliberately demystifies Silver and Golden’s forms to show that their transforming bodies are actually quite grotesque.
One of the first examples of this demystification comes in the film’s first musical sequence, in which the manager of the club Silver and Golden will eventually work at complains of a fishy odor. He rushes through the establishment, asking bouncers, kitchen staff, and his bookkeeper if they know where the smell is coming from, until eventually he locates the source in a dressing room where Silver and Golden, in their human forms, are naked. The fishiness is an obvious allusion to the fact that the girls are in fact mermaids, but fishiness also calls to mind vaginal odor. The girls may be beautiful, but the dichotomy of half-mermaid, half-human, and thus half-girl, half-woman means that they are experiencing changes, especially related to their sex organs. This reminds audiences of the imperfect, sometimes gross, but completely natural bodily symptoms of adolescence, and that even the most alluring onscreen women have bodily odors. Smoczyńska employs several other physical features to drive home the same point. Given that they are mermaids, Silver and Golden are seen at several points in the film with horrific attributes like large, yellowed fangs, thick claws, and unnaturally dilated eyes. These physical characteristics show that popular depictions of mermaids as beautiful enchantresses sugarcoat their mythology, just as popular depictions of maturing, young women sugarcoat the reality of adolescence.
Probably the most prominent feature of Silver and Golden’s unglamorized bodies are their tails. The first appearance of these appendages comes right after the club manager discovers the girls, and the band’s drummer, Perkusista, pours a glass of water over them to reveal their tails. The sisters’ sensual moaning during the transformation causes one to expect a reveal of colorful, fan-tailed fins covering in shimmering scales, characteristic of the beautiful mermaids in popular culture. Instead, Silver and Golden possess thick, grey tails, eel-like in shape with jagged fins and slimy scales. The reveal becomes even more surprising when in their human form, Perkusista shows Silver and Golden to have pubic areas “smooth as Barbie dolls;” feminine without any of the “gross” and explicit reality of a vagina. Not only are Silver and Golden’s tails slimy and odorous – two characteristics of a vagina that their human forms lack – but the tails themselves possess genitalia. These realistic sex organs on a mythological body remind viewers that beneath the glamorization and mystification of the female body and its sexuality lies a complete system of female sexual organs meant not for the pleasure of men, but for reproduction. The Lure, despite having mermaids as leads, more successfully depicts this reality of the female body than the vast majority of films currently on release, where the idea of clean, odorless, and perfect female bodies remains prevalent.
Julia Ducournau accomplishes a similarly realistic, unromanticized depiction of the young woman’s body in her film Raw. The film’s lead, Justine, is a sixteen-year-old vegetarian who, despite her young age, is entering her first year at veterinary school. While her academic excellence has allowed her to begin college a few years early, this also means Justine is emotionally, mentally, and physically immature in comparison to her classmates. For this reason, Justine must endure the woes of puberty on top of freshman hazing and acclimating to a new and unfamiliar place. Like Smoczyńska does with Silver and Golden, Ducournau makes no attempt to hide the grislier or unattractive aspects of Justine’s body as a means of drawing attention to the physical realities of womanhood. Soon after beginning the school year, Justine develops a truly horrific rash in conjunction with her first taste of meat (a raw rabbit kidney that each freshman must eat during one of many hazing rituals). She can be seen curled beneath her bedsheets, scratching at her body almost to the point of self-mutilation before the camera reveals the scaly, red, and bloodied rash covering Justine’s stomach and buttocks. This sudden and violent reaction is akin to major events in a young woman’s life such as her first period, with both being painful, unexpected, and bloody. Instead of referencing menstruation however, this rash is a physical manifestation of Justine’s awakened desire for flesh, an extremely important turning point in her young life. As Ducournau says herself, “these bodily transformations are also about the metamorphosis of identity” (Sélavy), and it is only right that this frightening transition in identity, from vegetarianism to eventual cannibalism, is matched with a frightening physical transformation. In matching such shifts in identity with shifts in the body, Ducournau emphasizes the point that the natural transition from girlhood to womanhood can be scary and vile. Justine visits a doctor the next day about the rash and she gives her a tube of ointment. Later on in the film, Justine finds the same ointment in her older sister Alexia’s medicine cabinet. This discovery goes to show that the maturing of the female body, even if unglamorous at times, is a universal experience that every woman goes through, even beautiful and seemingly ideal women like Alexia. With the reappearance of this rash ointment, viewers are also cautioned about depictions of the female body outside the world of Raw. Alexia’s outward appearance is like that of many women in film; she is beautiful, self-assured, cool and collected. The fact that even she has experienced the same unsightly changes as Justine demonstrates that every other seemingly perfect woman in film has undergone such transformations, even if popular cinema ignores that bodily reality.
In an exchange immediately following Justine’s discovery of Alexia’s medicine, the older sister notices Justine’s unruly eyebrows and unshaven armpits. Alexia notes that “at your age, I already gave myself Brazilians,” prompting Justine to expose her inexperience with the response: “What’s that?” Suddenly, Justine is laying spread-eagled on Alexia’s bed in just her underwear. The camera’s angle explicitly shows the area between her legs, an image that would normally feel born out of the male gaze. However, this image in the context of the scene creates feelings of intense anxiety rather than pleasure. Justine is on the brink of experiencing a second painful transition from girlhood to womanhood, this time in the form of hair removal. Ducournau provides several extreme close-ups of Justine’s pubic hair coming out the sides of her underwear which directly rebels the stereotypically smooth and hairless female bodies normally seen in film. These shots are not necessary to convey to the audience what part of Justine’s body Alexia is waxing. Instead, they act as further evidence of what an adolescent young woman’s body is actually like in its natural state. Alexia tells Justine that “beauty is pain,” a pain that the audience is not exempt from when the camera remains in extreme close-up as pink wax forcefully rips out Justine’s hair. This sequence elucidates the natural appearance of the vagina and the painful, unglamorous process of attaining the hairlessness that popular cinema has tried to pass off as commonplace.
Representation of the young woman’s body in both The Lure and Raw is refreshingly unique thanks to the care each director has taken in depicting changing, adolescent bodies in realistic ways, regardless of how grisly or imperfect they may be. Where Smoczyńska and Ducournau craft the films’ truly grotesque spectacles, however, is in conjunction with the animalistic sexuality of their heroines. As is noted in Carol J. Adams’ book The Sexual Politics of Meat, “cannibalism in fairy tales is generally a male activity” (Adams, 49). The Lure and Raw overturn this trope as it is exclusively beautiful, young women who not only devour other people, but do so as an expression of their sexuality.
Classic mermaid mythology, like that of The Lure’s source material, dictates that in order to survive, a mermaid must seduce and eat human men. Silver and Golden are no exception, and though they indulge in human food, it is the flesh of men that provides their most vital nourishment. Cannibalism is simply a part of the sisters’ nature and though it appears frightening and taboo to audiences, for Silver and Golden it is just what they have to do to survive. Because seduction is the first step in luring in their unsuspecting meal, Silver and Golden’s sexuality is directly tied to the act of cannibalism. Without the act of seduction, there is no meal, and vice versa. Once the sisters begin assimilating with humans, Silver’s attitude about her lifelong feeding habits begins to change. In true Little Mermaid f ashion, Silver falls in love with Mietek, the bassist of the band that pulls the pair of sirens to shore. At this point, it is established that Mietek, like every other male character, is not immune to Silver’s seduction (she very nearly eats him in the film’s opening) and therefore, Silver should have no problem making him love her back. However, Silver has begun repressing her cannibalistic tendencies and by extension her sexuality to be as human as possible so Mietek will love her back. In a tense conversation between the two, Silver asks “You want me to be a girl?” to which Mietek responds saying “...to me you’ll always be a fish, an animal. I can’t do this, as much as I’d like to.” Suddenly, Silver’s tragic fate is sealed. If she does not separate herself from her tail, her biological genitalia, and thus her sexuality, she will never win Mietek’s affection. A sad and disturbing sequence later in the film depicts Silver’s physical and symbolic castration as her ginormous tail is unceremoniously sawed off. The separation eliminates Silver’s voice mid-song, leaving her silent and bloody in a bed of ice as if she were a piece of meat in a fish market. Unfortunately, as far as Mietek is concerned, that is all Silver will ever be to him. Without her sexuality, she loses her identity and animus, all because she repressed her natural, cannibalistic tendencies.
The repression of Silver’s sexual needs and the cannibalism associated with it ultimately dooms her, but the same cannot be said for the sexually liberated Golden. Professor Simon Estok theorizes that “if one of the clear and deliberate functions of cannibalism is to endorse a binary opposition of animal and human... then no less does this very binary create the very proximity that it seeks to be done with” (Estok). Golden’s voracious appetite for flesh as both a vessel of sexual satisfaction and meat reveals both her animality, half-fish, and her humanity, half woman. Where Mietek views Silver as a piece of meat, just someone to use for sexual gain, Golden sees men as pieces of meat meant for sex and e ating. This perspective defies the misconception that women express themselves sexually, showing skin for example, for the pleasure of men and not for their own. Golden refuses to repress her animalistic sexuality just because she is now on land, taking many lovers in contrast to Silver’s commitment to one person. One night, Golden impulsively leaves the club with a stranger in an instance driven purely by her animal id. The encounter ends in the unknown man’s car which has been parked along the shoreline, acting as a symbolic median between Golden’s human form and her natural mermaid form. Through a foggy window the two can be seen kissing and holding one another until Golden growls and sinks her teeth into his neck, bloodying the window. She slithers from the car towards the ocean, having transformed back to her mermaid form so she could have penetrative sex. The man’s heart dangles from her mouth as she reenters the ocean to feed. Unlike Silver, Golden does not deny herself the pleasures of flesh that she as a young woman is naturally drawn to. Golden knows that she is beautiful, and she confidently wields that knowledge to satisfy her carnal urges. Such confidence and liberation in a woman’s sexuality has become almost taboo in patriarchal society, and Golden’s defiance of that societal norm is threatening to The Lure’s male characters. This is a young woman who is literally able to have her cake and eat it too; the male body can be used for intercourse, an act of creation, and consumption. Golden’s survival in the human world is based on this very dichotomy and by indulging her carnal urges, she does not fall victim to bodily nor sexual hunger. The same cannot be said for poor Silver.
At one time, it was believed that “one cause of cannibalism was thought to be lack of animal protein” (Adams, 55). Ducournau illustrates this idea in the most horrifying way possible through Justine’s sexually-charged journey from vegetarian to cannibal, and from girl to woman. Justine enters veterinary school as a staunch vegetarian, refusing the rabbit kidney that she must eat as a part of freshman initiation until Alexia forces it into her mouth. The pressure to eat the meat before she is ready reminds the audience of Justine’s age and the fact that perhaps she is not prepared for the looming transition from girlhood to womanhood. The consumption of meat is brought up as suspect for Justine’s rash when she sees the doctor, who asks if Justine has experienced any nausea after eating the raw kidney. Justine says yes, but also notes that “I am hungry, though. My stomach always feels empty.” Such emptiness implies a sense of unfulfillment. It is possible that Justine, being a young woman and a confirmed virgin, is unsatisfied with the sexual void in her life – a void that has been made more apparent by her sudden immersion in a sexually charged environment: college. Such carnal repression also mirrors Justine’s lifelong refusal of meat. All at once, young Justine is exposed to both meat and sex at the same time, ultimately triggering her violent coming-of-age.
Justine’s obsession with flesh begins in the cafeteria where she attempts to steal a hamburger by hiding it in her pocket. Subsequent scenes involve her eating pork shawarma at a gas station so far from the school, Justine had to take a bus there. In the middle of the night on the same day, her roommate Adrien finds her bent over their mini-fridge, concealing a package of raw chicken that she will eat when he returns to bed. All three of these early experiences with meat involve a great deal of shame. Unable to come to terms with these seemingly sinful cravings, Justine hides them, just as she hides her newfound sexuality. The repression of these urges only make them more potent and more horrific, leading to the onset of cannibalism. When performing the aforementioned Brazilian wax, Alexia cannot seem to remove a piece of wax from Justine’s pubic area. A scuffle breaks out when Alexia tries using scissors and Justine yells “You’ll circumcise me!” Ironically, the only “circumcision” happens when Justine kicks at the scissors, completely severing one of Justine’s fingers. With her older sister passed out, Justine calls an ambulance, Alexia’s nail-polished finger in her hands. The wait, however, proves too long and Justine’s morbid curiosity too strong; she drinks the blood that has pooled in her hand and moves to suck on the finger like an animal. Suddenly she stops and as she realizes what she has just done, disturbing organ music begins to blare, calling to mind Gothic vampire classics like Dracula and Nosferatu. The fear on her face is fleeting, and Justine begins taking small, deliberate bites out of Alexia’s finger, unable to stop herself now. From this moment onwards, Justine cannot be satisfied by meat alone. She desires the flesh of a human, and the pleasure that flesh provides.
Having grown more accustomed to the college environment, Justine begins partying, listening to sexually explicit music, and dressing in Alexia’s clothes. She is very clearly no longer the girl she was at the film’s start. One night, Justine attends a party where she receives her first kiss from a stranger. Frightened and inexperienced, Justine takes a bite out of the young man’s lip. Shame returns as she runs back to her apartment and washes off his blood in the shower, but not without eating the small piece of flesh. While Justine has grown accustomed to her taste for human flesh, she is still ashamed of her growing sexual urges. The culmination of her sexual desire occurs in the following scene, in which Justine joins Adrien in his bed. Up to now, Adrien has only been intimate with men, so their proximity feels platonic initially. Adrien begins asking Justine questions about the first kiss and if it had turned her on, prompting her to leave in embarrassment. Dejected at the lost possibility of a sexual encounter, Adrien turns on gay pornography. Like Justine, Adrien is also ashamed by his desire and turns to gay porn to remind himself of his “true” sexual preferences. That is, until Justine returns and the two begin grabbing at each other voraciously, almost no words exchanged. Like the eating of Alexia’s finger, Justine cannot stop herself once she has begun and she begins urging Adrien to skip the foreplay. The sex that occurs next is difficult to watch, reminiscent of the sex scenes in Louis Malles’ Damage. Justine and Adrien move across the floor, the latter doing so more to keep up with Justine’s ferocity. In attempts to maintain her reputation as the young, put-together and studious prodigy, Justine has completely repressed her sexuality. Just as she had avoided meat all her life, she cut herself off from her natural sexuality as a growing young woman. Now, the pent-up sexual frustration and all the hormones that come with adolescence surge forward with a force that Justine cannot control. She positions herself on top of Adrien and begins biting at his neck. The viewer cannot help but call to mind the cannibalistic behavior Justine has already displayed. Adrien yells at her to stop and as the young woman experiences her first orgasm, she takes a deep bite of her own forearm, the desire for flesh and release outweighing self-preservation. In this moment, Justine looks directly into the camera, implicating the viewer. As Ducournau describes it, “it’s like: ‘Do you still like me now?’ And you do still like her. But then what are you?” (Barton-Fumo, 46). Though terrifying, it is difficult to dislike Justine because she is enduring the very worst of her coming-of-age. While her urges may be taboo, they are even more disconcerting because they are relatable: “Cannibalism is seen as ‘inhuman,’ but it’s taboo precisely because it is human... it’s part of the human condition too. This form of animality exists in all of us” (Sélavy).
Though The Lure and Raw a re not necessarily realistic films, it is their grounding in reality that makes them so uncomfortable and at times disturbing. Both Smoczyńska and Ducournau have created uncommonly real depictions of young women and the painful inelegance they experience as a part of growing up. As women, each author behind these two films understands what it means to come-of-age as a female, and their first-hand experience is translated starkly and unapologetically to the screen. In showing the unglamorous realities of the natural female body and the terrifying commonalities between sexual and cannibal desire, Smoczyńska and Ducournau have crafted unique filmic experiences that ultimately force audiences to examine their understanding of desire in a refreshingly new way.
Adams, Carol J. The Sexual Politics of Meat: A Feminist-Vegetarian Critical Theory (Twentieth Anniversary Edition). New York, The Continuum International Publishing Group Inc, 2010.
Barton-Fumo, Margaret. "Pleasures of the Flesh." Film Comment, vol. 53, no. 2, Mar/Apr 2017, pp. 42-46. EBSCOhost,search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx? direct=true&db=aph&AN=121433509&site=ehost-live&scope=site.
Estok, Simon C. "Cannibalism, Ecocriticism, and Portraying the Journey." CLCWeb: Comparative Literature and Culture 14.5 (2012): <https://doi.org/10.7771/1481-4374.2138> Web.
Raw (Grave). Directed by Julia Ducournau, performances by Garance Marillier and Ella Rumpf. Focus World, 2016.
Sélavy, V. (2017, 05). FRESH MEAT. Sight and Sound, 27, 52-53. Retrieved from https://colorado.idm.oclc.org/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.colorado.idm.oclc.or g/docview/1892621913?accountid=14503
The Lure ( Córki dancingu) . Directed by Agnieszka Smoczyńska, performances by Marta Mazurek and Michalina Olszańska. Kino Świat, 2015.