The Sensual Appetite in Raw, Shame, and Bulimia

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There is not much that I miss about suffering from bulimia nervosa. I am relieved to have moved on, and sometimes feel euphoria at tiny pleasures—like a freed prisoner marveling at how blue the sky appears when not seen through a jail cell window. It’s not quite right to say that I miss having the outlet of abandoned feasting, because there are healthier indulgences open to the curious of mind and body. But I still want to flag the allure of disordered eating as a way of humanizing the bulimic. When your mental illness is characterized by binging on obscene amounts of food and then vomiting it up, your average healthy person is in no great rush to empathize.

Enter Raw, the debut feature by French director, Julia Ducournau. The film hinges around 18-year-old Justine (Garance Marillier), who arrives at vet school a vegetarian but, after being fed a rabbit’s kidney during a ritual hazing, discovers a craving for flesh of all kinds. She is ashamed of her new urges, and tries to conceal and control them, but they soon prove overwhelming, and come to shape her daily life. Which sounds familiar…

More than it’s intended to explore eating disorders, though, Raw intends to explore a sexual awakening—and in that respect it’s a stunning success. The film achieves such an intoxicating sensuality that, when the lights come up, eye contact with other cinema-goers is loaded with filthy promise. The sexiness of the film will be broached, but first I want to confess how Raw reconnects me with an appetite I like to think I’ve long since transcended.  (How hubristic to think oneself capable of severing ties with the past; as Theodore Roethke put it: “What falls away is always. And is near.”)

“Stealing a burger’s fucked up, even for me,” says Justine’s hot gay roommate Adrien (Rabah Nait Oufella), after she is caught pocketing a gelatinous slab of grey-brown meat from the college canteen. Her burger theft provokes a thrill of grimy recognition, for I too have sneakily palmed food and, in fact, was actually banned from one supermarket chain for shoplifting cream cakes. It turns out that Justine’s feasting is deferred (she throws away the burger), but Adrien notes her appetite and takes her out for lamb shawarma. This doesn’t sate her. Later she raids the fridge and finds raw chicken breasts. The manner in which she sinks her teeth into the pallid pink cuts is a gratifying depiction of wild abandonment. I recall the feeling well; the way I ate when binging was never how I ate in company. My binges often ended in shame and physical pain, but at the beginning there was an animal release in just devouring—using hands and creating mess, all attempts at restraint forgotten, leaping off the cliff edge propelled by a mysterious and maladjusted instinct. “He’s spinning to get closer to God,” director Steve McQueen once said about the sex addict protagonist of his 2011 film, Shame. It’s a line that’s stuck with me ever since, so perfectly does it  resonate with the dark euphoria of how it feels to indulge a compulsion.

Speaking of Shame, there is perhaps no better film for depicting compulsion as a relentless behavioral cycle that makes a pathetic passenger out of the human forced to act it all out. Brandon (Michael Fassbender) is addicted to an act that many of us view as the ultimate pleasure, but for him it is bound up in loneliness and pain.

In Raw, sex is shown as a more heated affair, and refreshingly it is a woman who is wild with desire. One of Julia Ducournau’s many talents as a filmmaker is to capture the looks—with their intimate inferences—that pass between Justine and Adrien. This muscle-bound man is a petite virgin’s prey, a role he occupies against the grain of his sexuality. Jim Williams’ soundtrack—a burr of electronic desire—is deployed as Adrien kicks a ball around, topless. Cut to Justine’s eyes boring into his body with a lust so intense that it ruptures something inside, blood blooming from her nostril.  This confluence, between hunger and sex, is where Ducournau’s depiction of cannibalism is different from my bulimia, although both involved tortured remorse.

Indulging doesn’t lead to fullness; gorging only fuels a desire for more gorging and an awareness of one’s supreme lack of control. Marillier’s performance here is often more animal than human—when she eventually loses her virginity, she is physically frenzied to the point that her worried lover says, “stop, stop”. In the moment of climax she sinks her teeth into her arm, lips-smacking, eyes rolled back, desires sated in a whirlwind of release.

Michael Fassbender wears a similar expression during the threesome scene in Shame. His face is a mask of orgasm, pain, and loathing. He is naked, fucking two women and responding physically to these bare facts. Still his super-ego is tormented by the knowledge that he is spinning out, having abandoned his responsibilities, particularly to the one person who needs him most in that exact moment. In the microcosm of this scene he is living out a fantasy, but in the context of his life he is a slave to the wrong pursuit—and he knows it.

Which is pretty much how an eating disorder feels once you get through the initial honeymoon period.  I can’t count how many years I walked around drained and ashamed, ashamed of being too drained to engage with the meat of life. Eaten away were not just mountains of food, but my insides, too. Relationships were impossible. The core of me was otherwise engaged. Stray nights with inviting opportunists—probably equally lost in their lives—stood in for sex.

The most moving point in the circular shape of Shame is when Brandon decides to make a go of being a normal person. He throws all his sex aides in the trash and heads out on a date with a nice lady from work.  I have never worked so hard for anything as I did to distance myself from the trappings of my disorder. There followed a blossoming of fortune that was the consequence of desires shackled to cannier sources of gratification. Recovering from bulimia is largely about evolving the way you respond to your impulses, but then you find yourself in a strange bind wherein you’re never quite sure if you’ve evolved enough to be free from self-destruction.

Unlike Brandon—at least in the three-day timeline we see in the film—I have traveled some way from my compulsion (although not so far as I’d like). It seems important, at this point in progress, to check what’s happening in the old murky places. “Symptoms are mnemonics of desire; and desire… is unforgettable,” the psychologist-essayist Adam Phillips once wrote, illuminating why it’s often so hard to move on from a profound affliction.

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As I progressed—as I still progress—what makes me feel safe, while generating purer hits of excitement than were ever available to me as a bulimic, is intimacy. This is not a euphemism for fucking, although it covers that too. There is no high quite like connecting with a person you are attracted to on whatever level—and it feels all the giddier now, because these intimacies eluded me for the longest time. When they started to pop up, a desire not to lose them kept me going. The pursuit of gratification through people is not so different to the pursuit of gratification through food or sex. It’s a way to search for relief outside of yourself and is not in itself faulty; when acceptably harnessed, this urge can show you the world. Brandon simply gives up too soon. He is too hard on himself when he can’t get hard for a woman he actually likes. And this extreme emotion has him seeking solace away from humankind—he turns away from people and leaps back off a familiar cliff-face into his addiction.  

Even the urge to leap off cliff edges can serve you well in terms of recovery, because you have to be bold to forge a path when there is only wilderness. You cannot become a slave to known pleasures, even when you are no longer sick, even when your releases are higher than before. There is no spiritual transcendence in the wake of behavioral change. People stay as craving beings, wanting something meaty to fill the hollow places. And having recovered from one compulsion doesn’t serve as an amulet against future compulsions; anything can become a crutch if sought too monotonously. The only true defense I’ve found against dependence is self-expansion. “We shall not cease from exploration,” says T. S. Eliot, “And the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”

Raw ends with Justine trying to deny her foray into flesh-eating by leaping back onto the vegetarian wagon. “I’m sure you’ll find a solution, honey!” says her father, opening his shirt to show a lattice of scars inflicted by her sister, and illustrating  that her fight to stay clean is going against the family grain. Shame ends as it begins, with Brandon lustfully eyeing a strange woman on the subway. Maybe he hasn’t changed at all and will be stuck in cycles of trying to conquer his addiction until death.

Like Justine, my appetite still exists. And like Brandon, I still love to leave the orderly world behind through indulgences. I can’t go into the details of what helped me to graduate from a diagnosable eating disorder, because it’s too personal, complicated, and ongoing. All I can say is that addiction and mental illness thrive in isolation and some people (not all of them) are worth trusting with everything—spinning towards these flesh and blood companions provides support that renders other crutches flimsy by comparison.

There’s no cure for the complexes out of which bulimia can grow and there is no end to the struggle of recovery, but there are beautiful consolations that one can cling to during adversity. After a certain point in progress, what you want dovetails with what a lot of people want; esoteric drives born of illness blend with broader goals that anyone searching for meaning in life can relate to. This is where having been sick becomes a strange blessing: I can read a poem that might strike another person as bleak and feel a surge of joy because it connects my despair to another human’s despair. Having suffered in isolation, suffering with others feels like an upgrade! But rather than pretend I have always been socially-adjusted, it feels more important to use the movies at my disposal to illuminate the raw shame of bulimia.

With thanks to Daniella Shreir, editor of Another Gaze, for helping to conceive this essay idea