Imagine “When Harry Met Sally” if Harry revealed himself to be a cannibal who drugs and kidnaps Sally in order to chop her up and sell her as meat to the perverted uber-rich — that’s “Fresh.”
For the first half-hour of Mimi Cave’s 2022 directorial debut, you’ll think you’re seeing a classic rom-com. Sebastian Stan’s Steve and Daisy Edgar-Jones’ Noa have a meet-cute in a grocery store. Steve has a Hugh Grant-esque awkward charm and Noa is disillusioned with modern romance after one too many bad first dates. Whirlwind romance ensues. It’s so rom-com that there’s even a funny Black best friend to girl-talk with white girl Noa.
But after those first 33 idyllic minutes, the opening credits finally roll in a magnificent and terrifying beat-drop moment that turns the movie from rom-com into horror. The audience has been played for fools, or better yet, romantics.
The graphic, played-for-laughs violence of “Fresh” is strange and grandiose, but it’s not new. Recent social thrillers like “Get Out” and “The Menu” have also used wild body horror to magnify real societal horrors. Additionally, the past few years alone have seen an uptick in popular cannibalism-centric media. Take the movies “Raw” and “Bones and All”; the show “Yellowjackets”; and the books “Woman, Eating,” “A Certain Hunger,” “Lapvona” and “Tender is the Flesh.”
Why this increased obsession with cannibalism, with preternatural violences of the body? Visceral physicality is able to communicate something that words and drawn-out metaphors can’t. Some of these recent movies, shows and books suggest cannibalism as a metaphor for something all-consuming — addiction, love, power — while others use cannibalism as a way to talk about womanhood. “Fresh” does some of both.
Again and again the film parallels images of literal human meat — seriously, like chopped-off legs and human meatballs — against images of women’s bodies to make the (often not-so-subtle) commentary that women’s bodies are treated like meat. It’s an overt and somewhat tired metaphor, but there’s just enough gore for it to remain effective.
The horror of “Fresh” doesn’t come from Noa’s situation or Steve’s brutality — there’ve been too many kidnapped girl movies for that to still work. What makes the film so unsettling and pertinent, what made me close my laptop and check that my location was still turned on, is that we liked Steve.
At its core, “Fresh” has a rom-com consciousness, both due to the first 30 minutes and scenes after that point that still feel like they could almost be in a rom-com. Noa has a getting-ready makeover scene, but it’s for a coerced date with her kidnapper; Steve dances in the kitchen to ’80s synth-pop, but it’s while he’s chopping and vacuum-sealing human meat.
And so the movie’s over-the-top violence brings to mind critiques about romance, as represented in rom-coms, that feel familiar. “Fresh” mocks notions of the grand romantic gesture and “all-consuming” love which can turn violent. Steve says at one point that cannibalism is “about giving yourself over to somebody, becoming one forever. And that’s a beautiful thing. That’s surrender. That’s love.”
The sexual violence is obvious here, but it points to the subtle sexual violence that underlies most classic rom-coms. Think of every creepy (or downright chargeable) moment in a rom-com that’s played as romantic: the stalking in “Groundhog Day,” persistently asking a stranger out in “27 Dresses” and “The Notebook,” public serenading in “Say Anything” and “10 Things I Hate About You,” etc.
Steve’s cannibalism – and the cannibalism of the men he sells to (who like to receive their meat alongside the personal belongings and underwear of the woman it came from) – is patriarchal violence at its most severe. But the movie makes clear that this extreme is a magnification of other, smaller forms of violence. Before she meets Steve, Noa goes on a first date with a guy who, when she politely rejects him, calls her a “stuck-up bitch.” Similarly, Steve’s final words to Noa after she rejects him and runs away are, “You fucking bitch!”
The horror of “Fresh” doesn’t come from Noa’s situation or Steve’s brutality — there’ve been too many kidnapped girl movies for that to still work. What makes the film so unsettling and pertinent, what made me close my laptop and check that my location was still turned on, is that we liked Steve. Noa liked Steve. It was romantic, so romantic, until it wasn’t.