Video Essay: The Art Of The Female Cannibal Movie
January 27th, 2021 | By Jenny Nulf
One of horror’s most taboo subgenres is cannibalism. It was a subgenre for the exploitive, often taking cultural traditions and grotesquely displaying them on screen, fueling xenophobia. But with the incredible success of The Silence Of The Lambs, cannibalism seemed to morph into something else in film.
It became less of an exploitive subgenre and more of a tool for high brow horror.
Cannibalism tempted art house auteurs, like celebrated filmmakers Claire Denis and Fruit Chan. The hunger for human flesh became a rich way to explore humanity’s dark core, from coming of age drama to political hot topics, but moreso: cannibalism found a feminine edge. The final girl was no longer just wielding a phallic shaped weapon, but drenched in blood she sank her teeth into her victims.
The two women in Park Chul-soo’s sapphic horror-drama 301/302 each have complex relationships to their food: where one woman vomits at the sight of it, the other fully indulges in rich, beautiful meals. For both women, their past traumas are intertwined with their relationships to food, which is depicted in flashbacks throughout the film.
In the 90s, South Korea had a number of lesbian horror films, but like most of the genre these relationships were coded in subtext. 301/302 is no exception — the two neighboring women are never explicitly romantic, however to consume another’s body in horror is a sensual practice, thus coding these women as lovers. Director Park and writer Lee Seo-goon twisted the cannibal subgenre, creating a fresh and new take where women could release their past trauma by indulging in each other.
Fresh after her celebrated success Beau Travail, Claire Denis surprised her growing arthouse audience with a horror movie. Similar to 301/302, Trouble Every Day is a challenging film, and like many of Denis’ films, it demands the viewer’s patience. Denis utilizes cannibalism as a tool to explore a toxic love affair: two scientists who were once obsessed with each other are now sick, one luring men to fields to eat them, and the other having violent fantasies about his fresh new wife.
Cannibalism is an exquisite metaphor for lust, especially the taboo lust of adultery.
In Aamis, a married doctor falls in love with a PhD student who is researching eating habits in northeastern India. Their affair takes a dark turn when he begins to feed her himself. Both Trouble Every Day and Aamis depictions of lust are savage, and the women in them are haunted by their sickness.
They feast on the flesh of lovers like an addict until satiated, but the quell of their hunger never lasts, and the only conclusion is to destroy themselves.
BODY AUTONOMY & CLASS STRUCTURE
Fruit Chan’s Dumplings is…a complicated movie. It tackles incest, abortion, and the feminine fear of aging all in one. Although abortion has been legal in Hong Kong since 1981, both the stigma and the cost forced young women to turn to the black market. Dumplings is an indictment of class structure, and at its center is Mrs. Li: a wealthy older woman whose desire to be attractive to her cheating husband leads her to consuming aborted fetuses in the form of Aunt Mei’s special dumplings.
The dumplings, though, are a double edged sword: a fountain of youth that syphons from a pool of the underprivileged. Although Mrs. Li’s intentions originally aren’t completely selfish, they soon become so, and her cannibal practices become a necessity that lead her down a dark road.
In many films, cannibalism is a family affair, like you see in the The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. However, where Tobe Hooper’s family of cannibals is patriarchal, recent films like Macabre and We Are What We Are are matriarchal. Similar to Dumplings, in Macabre cannibalism keeps you young, bestowing immortality on the consumer.
This theme can trace back to Elizabeth Bathory, who was rumored to bathe in the blood of virgins to retain her youth. In Macabre, the family is led by its matriarch, Dara, a strange woman who looks as young as she does old. Macabre is a bloody, cruel film that is gleeful in its massacre, including the murder a pregnant woman. Although it contains a final girl, the film itself takes pleasure in its brutality against women, therefore its messaging about female power structures is unclear.
Although not as grotesque as Macabre, Jorge Michel Grau’s We Are What We Are explores a family’s restructuring after their patriarchal figure dies. In the film, the eldest daughter, Sabina, attempts to take lead of the family’s sacred ritual and guide her brothers, but a finger found in the father’s autopsy leads detectives to them.
Jim Mickle’s remake is a bit different, and more female-forward.
Steeped in midwestern Americana, instead of killing the father, the film opens with the mother’s sudden death. Left with his two daughters and young son to take care of, the father struggles to lead the family ritual while consumed with grief, much like Patricia at the beginning of the original Mexican film. His daughters begin to come of age, and they question their family’s history. In an act to retain his patriarchal power, the father murders one of his daughter’s sexual partners.
This creates a catalyst for the daughters to push back on their father, and in a wild dinner scene they eat him alive, thus consuming his power. In the original film, Sabina is the only one to escape to continue the family tradition. However, in the remake, all the children escape, and the question of continuing the ritual is left unsaid.
COMING OF AGE
Coming of age is the metaphor du jour for cannibalism, peaking with Julia Ducournau’s beloved first feature Raw, but it didn’t begin there. Although a little more fantastical, I consider Karyn Kusama’s Jennifer’s Body a film about cannibalism. And she’s not just eating humans: she’s eating boys. Teenage boys.
Similar to Dumplings and Macabre, the consumption of boys keeps Jennifer youthful and sexually alluring — an object of the male gaze. However, it’s the film’s approach to young female friendship that makes Kusama’s addition to the subgenre interesting. The film’s protagonist is Jennifer’s best friend Needy, whose relationship with Jennifer is reminiscent of many tumultuous teen girl friendships. Jennifer’s Body is a millennial deconstruction that empowers women, utilizing cannibalism as a demonic power to bring suffering to toxic teen boys.
The Neon Demon, like Jennifer’s Body, focuses on the sexualization of the female form, but also dives into how those societal pressures stem from the fashion industry. Because cannibalism is tightly wound to the human body, it’s a perfect metaphor for the unrealistic pressures put on women’s bodies. Director Nicolas Winding Refn made the film inspired by his wife Liv Corfixen’s career, and it’s a stunning whirlwind of his traditional neon visuals that both celebrates the female form while exploring the sinister world of modeling that pits females against another.
It seems like everyone’s favorite cannibal movie is Raw, and there is good reason for it. Heavily inspired by Denis’ Trouble Every Day, Raw takes the film’s arthouse influences and molds them into the coming of age genre. A mix of sisterly bonding and self exploration, Raw is entirely a femme film, which is why it feels so personal to so many. It combines family tradition, body autonomy, lust, and female friendship: everything that’s individually been explored in each of the films previously mentioned.
Cannibalism is not exclusively feminine, but the recent trend of personal female stories has made the subgenre unique. Cannibalism represents femininity in many forms, whether it be power structure or desires. Women will eat you alive.
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