Watching a character give into some primordial desire, leer over their friend or lover with hungry eyes, and then rip into the muscles of this victim until blood drips so thick the skin of the feaster’s chin stains red; oh, there is nothing so delirious as cannibalism nothing so wrought with cinematic potential, with metaphor and spectacle and everything film should provide. It can provoke a nearly rapturous excitement—in the sense of cinematic catharsis, of course.
Cannibalism in these films is an affliction given only to the few, so I understand if seeing them onscreen sickens you as well. Most people I have spoken to about Bones and All, the Timothée Chalamet and Luca Guadagnino picture released last year, were disappointed and disgusted by its grossness. When I hosted a screening of my favorite movie, 2016’s Raw, even my horror-obsessed friends left with a stomachache. Yet I’ve watched and rewatched each—the former twice, the latter four times—and they get better and better each time.
If you are thus-far unenlightened on these delightful films, here are brief overviews:
Bones and All (2022) opens with 18-year-old Maren (Taylor Russell), eyes glassed over, gnawing on her friend’s finger until the bones shine through. She then embarks on a cross-country journey from Maryland to Minnesota in order to find her mother. Along the way she meets other Eaters, including Sully (Mark Rylance), an older gentleman with a hair-rope of his victims, and Lee (Timotheé Chalamet), a charismatic young Eater who accompanies her on her journey. Blithely: it’s more a love story than anything else, a tragic depiction of a few outsiders trying to find their way in.
By contrast, Raw (2016), the debut feature of French filmmaker Julia Ducournau, lingers on the corporeal horror itself. Lifelong vegetarian Justine (Garance Marillier) enters her first semester at an esteemed veterinary school which her sister, Alexia (Ella Rumpf), also attends. For initiation, Justine must consume a raw rabbit kidney, her first time eating meat and the beginning of her devolution driven by her newfound cannibalistic desires which serve as metaphor for her burgeoning sexuality. It too is a love story, albeit familial, as Justine and Alexia bond over their shared affliction.
Perhaps I wrote the above summaries to paint these films in as reasonable a manner as possible—they are both Bildungsromane, about young women and their relationship to their mothers, their siblings, their lovers and themselves. The performances and direction and writing are all exquisite, making these easy films to enjoy. Except they are also about cannibalism. The young women in question are driven primarily by an innate desire to to take a body, any body, and consume it. Justine’s arc in Raw is a devolution into ferality: she steals raw chicken from her sister’s fridge and tears into it animallike; Alexia’s finger gets cut off and she sucks then gnaws on the skin and blood of the dismembered digit; at a party, she bites off a chunk of a random guy’s lip as they make out. And that is just the beginning. In both films, we often see our protagonists—the people whose perspectives we are meant to empathize with, mind you—with the blood of their victims slathered across their lower face and neck. Lee slits someone’s throat in order to feast; Alexia habitually causes car crashes for the same reason. It is horrific behavior that anyone of any sanity would immediately condemn. So, why do I so adore Justine and Alexia, Maren and Lee?
First, we must remember these are fictional stories, and distinct from historical occurrences. In tragic instances such as the Donner Party or the Andes Flight Disaster, groups were stranded without food and driven to consume other party members in order to survive. These are stories which position cannibalism as a survival tool, a harrowing last resort. For both the Eaters of Bones and All and the sisters of Raw, cannibalism is a biological urge more akin to a hereditary addiction from which they cannot escape. They are driven not by their exterior circumstances but by their genetics. As we in adolescence must learn to live with our bodies, despite their ever-changing, ever-surprising, ever-disgusting nature, these young people must learn to live with their cannibalism.
You may object to my position of the body as “ever-disgusting,” and reasonably so. I agree that we should teach everyone to love their specific body, to not want any others; young people should know and forever remember to not moralize their bodies, to not claim any are “good” or “bad” or “ugly” or “beautiful.” Yet, to live in any body, regardless of its quirks and specificities, is disgusting. Our bodies are collections of bones and sinews and blood and muscles and skin; warm, wet bundles of red and white and ghastly yellows. Skins peels, organs rupture, fluids secrete with various viscosities and odors—and we have no agency over any of this. Our hair and nails slowly grow without our taking note; our heart drums; our blood wriggles to and fro like liquid snakes beneath our skin; our stomachs and intestines and livers convulse without consent. The use of our senses is dependent upon a myceliatic web of strings wrapped in a blubberlike stuff. Our means of perceiving the world is carried by a tossed-together group of substances and structures which, if isolated and placed in our hands, we would drop in disgust.
This is the power of cinematic body horror. It places, perhaps forces, that grossness into our hands, makes us touch it and remember that we have it inside us too. That we are built by it too. We can drop it, of course, and turn off the TV or walk out of the theatre. But if it’s a well-created film, we don’t want to; that absorptive power of cinema pulls us in and makes us hold tight, no matter the protestations our fingers and palms raise. When Sully and Maren feast on a just-dead old woman and we hear the slurping of veins, the lapping of blood, the mudlike squeeging of muscles swallowed—oh, we wriggle and writhe, but we keep watching, for we are invested in the narrative. And as protagonists, these cannibals are whom the film wants us to identify with, to see the film’s world through. Their eyes become our eyes, their desires ours as well. We too become cannibalistic. When the camera pans over a bus full of people, we cannot help but see them as bodies, as the individual parts exposed by the film, and as live meat to be soon preyed upon. Upon exiting the theatre and glancing down upon our arms’ crawling skin, we see it the same—the muscles and veins and blood and bones and marrow, the potential feast of another.
These cannibal films are undoubtedly worthwhile for their beautiful and unique portrayal of adolescence and independence. But they are also must-watches for how they remind us of our bodies—that we must live inside a body, and that our bodies are no different from those of any animal. We are meat. We are meat, yet blessed—perhaps cursed?—with cognizance. It is within this unchangeable state we must learn to live, regardless of how revolting it feels.