Saturday 7 October 2017

That Girl is Forever.

“That’s what parenthood was about, wasn’t it? Slowly understanding your child less and less until she wasn’t yours anymore but herself.”
In an interview with Megan Abbott in Entertainment Weekly, the writer explains that the driving force behind her novels, which centre on the experiences of teenage girls, was allowing them more complexity - aggression, desire, and ambition. She says "I think women are always trying to figure out their own adolescence. We never stop.", which I think is a perfect way to preface both Raw, directed by Julia Ducournau (her first full-length film) and Abbott's own You Will Know Me
Part of why we do constantly try to figure out our own adolescence is, I think because we are always working with limited information and skewed perspectives - the former maybe a deliberate exercise of power that tries to control what teenage girls can be and do in their lives, and the later wilful ignorance that finds comfort in cliches. The parents in both stories are guilty of both, even though the motives are different. 

In Raw, we meet Justine's parents as they stop on the way to dropping off their daughter at a prestigious veterinary University (where their other daughter is already studying), grabbing some food for the road. In a scene that gains a different meaning later, Justine's mother is horrified to find that her daughter has been served a piece of meat with her potatoes, even though the whole family is vegetarian. She goes and complains loudly to the staff, and the viewers assume that she is just a particularly outspoken vegetarian, making a scene - an overbearing parent, still controlling what her daughter can and can't eat now that she is old enough to go to University. Later, we find out that the control that she exercises in the family is overbearing, but for an entirely different reason. 

In You Will Know Me, the protagonists are the parents - it's the story of Devon, a gymnastics prodigy on a highly competitive track that is meant to eventually lead to the Olympic team, but we follow Devon's parents, Katie and Eric Knox, and the way that their lives are revolving around Devon's schedule of endless training sessions, booster meetings and injuries. As much as Raw is defined by something that happened before Justine's birth, the seed from which everyone grows in You Will Know me - a terrible accident in which a very young Devon lost two toes due to Eric's carelessness, is something that inevitably charts Devon's life now. The book circles back to the question of how Devon became the prodigy, which takes as much talent as it does focused, complete ambition, which the parents and her teachers feel comes from her (while the other kids around her, the mediocre ones, are constantly driven by their parents, require encouragement and discipline, Devon does all of this to herself, single-minded). Is it because or in spite of her deformed foot? Does the foot hold her back, a constant reminder of Eric's guilt and shortcomings as a parent, or is it somehow imbued with the ability to give her a certain edge, an opinion that Eric voices throughout the narrative? 

In both cases, the control at the beginning of the story - the mother taking care that Justine sticks to her vegetarian diet, Eric and Katie presiding over Devon's schedule (while often forgetting their other child, Drew, who starts to become a prescient, constant observer in part because their parents don't let him be anything else) - falls apart, which leads to a catastrophe. At veterinary school, Justine is immediately thrown into the chaos of a complex hazing ritual that new students have to survive to be accepted, during which she is forced, both by the older students and her own sister, to eat a raw rabbit kidney. Her first contact with meat first leads to a terrible rash all over her body but then seems to trigger something much worse, a craving for raw meat that, in the course of the film, turns into cannibalism. 

Raw is unflinching body horror, but the way that it uses the images to chart Justine's transformation from a shy student trying to disappear in the masses, to not stand out, to a predator who deliberately transforms herself so that she may attract prey (in a central scene, taking the lyrics of plus putes que toutes les putes literally, as an education), is magnificent. Like Ginger Snaps, the bloodlust is profoundly connected to Justine's sexuality, her awakening cannibalism tied to her sexual desire, with the threat of mauling hanging over every encounter she has. Eventually, her sister reveals the family secret: Alex has transformed as well (and found a brilliant way to capture prey - running into traffic to cause accidents, then devouring the victims), and we start to realise that the mother's attempts to keep her children away from meat was a very insufficient way to try and control a genetic predisposition to cannibalism. 

This twist: that the helicopter parent has a very good reason for what she is doing, but that the decision to keep vital information from her daughter backfires dramatically, leading to a lot of bloodshed and victims wheeled away on stretchers with pieces missing. The transformation of the meek girl that we meet in the beginning into the predator desperately attempting to keep her best friend safe from her own cravings seems inevitable, especially once Justine leaves her parents' control into the very different environment of the veterinary school, one that demands exactly the kind of transformation that Justine just takes to the next level. After the siren sounds three times to indicate the end of rush week, not everyone has survived. 

Justine's parents assuming she will still follow their guidance, that she can be kept from this simply through the rules that have been established in her childhood, speak to neither of them realising what it means when children become their own people. The same happens to Eric and Katie in You Will Know Me - they start out with seeing Devon as this single-minded, driven girl, who needs nobody else to feed her own ambition, even though she is the hope of the entire community. They see her as an extension of the community's ambitions, and while they focus entirely on that goal and lose themselves in the sheer finance- and time-consuming schedule of raising a star athlete, Devon becomes a person of her own. The book shows this perfectly in what Katie encounters when she secretly reads Devon's diary, at first only finding a detailed chart of her athletic progress, then later completely misinterpreting more personal entries because she cannot even think of her daughter as a person with desires beyond the Olympic team. The single-mindedness of that goal works like a parasite, constantly drawing resources out of the family, attention, care, time. Everybody is constantly too tired to pay attention to changes (while in the background, Drew develops Scarlet fever, and that fever becomes a weird sort of heat source for the entire novel, "we are a sick house" Katie says at one point, wondering about her own phrasing almost immediately after). Then, a boy is killed in a car accident and the entire community is shaken up, the routine is disturbed, a rock is thrown into the so tightly wound mechanism, and everything starts falling apart. As much as Devon is the focus point of the story, she suddenly turns into a stranger, someone who has developed into a complex person while everyone else was just focused on that one aspect of her. She is grappling with that as much as her parents are, but since the book focuses on Katie's experience over everyone else's, the main feeling that remains is one of an unsettling, disturbing strangeness, the unknowability of a teenage girl who has started to have secrets. 

Grave/Raw (directed by Julia Ducournau, starring Garance Marillier, Ella Rumpf, Rabah Nait Oufella, Laurent Lucas, Joana Preiss).

You Will Know Me, written by Megan Abbott.

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