Film Review: “Fresh” – Meat Cute

By Nicole Veneto

Never mind the faint of heart, Mimi Cave’s first feature isn’t for people with weak stomachs.

Fresh, directed by Mimi Cave and starring Daisy Edgar Jones, Sebastian Stan, and Jonica T. Gibbs. Now streaming on Hulu.

Sebastian Stan and Daisy Edgar Jones in Fresh. Photo: Sundance Film

(Fair warning to Arts Fuse readers: In addition to spoilers, I will be subjecting you to as many food-related puns as I can conjure up here. I make no apologies for my “corn”-iness whatsoever; the opportunity to “ham” it up in this review is too tantalizing to ignore, so if agonizingly bad Dad jokes aren’t your “taste,” then turn back now.)

Admittedly, not much piqued my interest at this year’s Sundance Film Festival compared to 2021 or 2020. The most buzzworthy film featured in 2022’s line-up was Kogonada’s sci-fi melodrama After Yang, but for the most part, nothing seemed to ignite the sort of word-of-mouth fascination We’re All Going to the World’s Fair or Possessor generated on the festival circuit. Fellow Arts Fuse contributor Peg Aloi’s Sundance dispatches did draw my attention to one particular film: Fresh, the feature debut from Mimi Cave, best known for her work directing music videos for Sleigh Bells and Sylvan Esso. Peg’s bite-sized synopsis promising a “gruesome film” blending “body horror” with trenchant social commentary skewering “the current state of romance and dating” from a female perspective intrigued me, as did her warning “this film is not for the faint of heart.” Indeed, Fresh is an edge-of-your-seat thriller that starts off as a romantic comedy and then takes a sharp turn into full-blown horror. Never mind the faint of heart, Cave’s first feature isn’t for people with weak stomachs.

Tired of swiping through lackluster suitors, receiving unsolicited dick pics, and going on soul-crushingly terrible dates, Noa (Normal People’s Daisy Edgar Jones, a ringer for a young Charlotte Gainsbourg) has just about given up on looking for love entirely. Like any young woman, she confides in her best friend, Mollie (Jonica “Jojo” T. Gibbs), about her numerous gripes with today’s digitized sexual economy: the negging, the constant and overwhelming chime of notifications, the misogynistic hostility at rejection. If it’s appeared on Bye Felipe, chances are Noa’s suffered through it. And then, while perusing the produce section at the grocery store, Noa meets Steve (Sebastian Stan a.k.a. Bucky Barnes, The Winter Soldier, in the Marvel Cinematic Universe), a plastic surgeon who charms her with an adorably awkward spiel about cotton candy grapes into forfeiting her phone number. Sparks fly on a first date that ends in a sensuous hookup, and Noa finds herself falling fast and hard despite the numerous “red flags” Mollie points out, mainly Steve’s “shady” lack of social media and sudden offer to go on a romantic weekend getaway. Thoroughly swept off her feet, Noa accompanies Steve back to his remote country home the night before their trip, unaware that she’s placed herself on the menu for an insatiable appetite more horrifying than she or Mollie could ever have imagined.

Spoiler alert: Not only is Steve a psychotic cannibal who keeps women chained up in his basement like veal, he’s farming women for their meat to sell to Satanic rich white men on the black market. The big reveal comes a little more than 30 minutes into the movie alongside the opening titles, capping off an excellent first act that’s astutely hilarious in its depiction of 21st century dating and incredibly effective at building tension. I feared Fresh would only gesture towards being transgressive but fall short, similar to my intense disappointment with Sundance-darling Promising Young Woman. For the most part, Fresh delivers on the sort of grotesque horrors you can expect from a movie about cannibalism (sans Steve’s freezer full of obvious prop body parts). The things Steve does to Noa and her fellow captives — surgically mutilating their bodies and filleting their breasts and buttocks like he’s chef Gordon Ramsey — are more than upsetting to think about. Still, Fresh isn’t as visceral or boundary-pushing as it could be with its central concept, probably because the film is being dumped onto Hulu as “original programming” instead of receiving a theatrical release. Compared to the unapologetically abject violence featured in the films of Julia Ducournau or Jennifer Kent, Fresh noticeably pulls its punches just short of being truly shocking, as if the CGI blood splatter and last-minute cutaways from the horror are purposefully protecting female sensibilities from any unnecessary discomfort or offense.

Furthermore, Lauryn Kahn’s screenplay bites off a bit more than it can chew, introducing story elements that aren’t fleshed-out to their fullest extent, such as the Satanic aspect of Steve’s rich clientele (“the one percent of the one percent”) and his wife Ann’s (Charlotte Le Bon) willing complicity in his crimes. At worst, Kahn is guilty of riding Get Out’s coattails, harnessing horror tropes and stylistic conventions in service of contemporary social commentary through the vector of black comedy. Khan clearly lacks Jordan Peele’s wit and mastery at cinematic storytelling, though the central metaphor that inspired Fresh is ripe with meaning. At their best, relationships are physically, spiritually, and emotionally nourishing for both partners. But many women end up sacrificing parts of themselves for the sake of love, their personhood “slowly being eaten” away. The idea of women as fodder in the heterosexual dating economy’s “meat market” also lends itself to Laura Mulvey’s observations on the “fragmented” female body in narrative cinema; how the camera dismembers and dissects women into pieces and parts, framing their long legs and supple thighs like they’re literal cuts of meat to be devoured by the hungry male gaze.

Cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski, who collaborated with director Ari Aster on Hereditary and Midsommer, visually accentuates this metaphor with plenty of extreme close-ups on people eating food and chopping up meat. Many scenes are bathed in red light, invoking both the conventional color of love and the image of a slab of prime rib sizzling under a butcher’s heat lamp. The visuals, combined with Cave’s impeccable choice in music (both “You’re Not Good Enough” by Blood Orange and “Heads Will Roll” by Yeah Yeah Yeahs are featured in pivotal scenes), give Fresh a slick, poppy energy that makes even the darkest, most difficult moments easier to stomach.

Although Fresh doesn’t quite possess the nauseating staying power of movies like Raw or Trouble Every Day, it’s nonetheless a bold first feature from a female filmmaker. Sicko gorehounds like myself will find themselves hungry for more. But for everyone else, Fresh brings something new to the palate.

Nicole Veneto graduated from Brandeis University with an MA in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, concentrating on feminist media studies. Her writing has been featured in MAI Feminism & Visual Culture, Film Matters Magazine, and Boston University’s Hoochie Reader. She’s the co-host of the new podcast Marvelous! Or, the Death of Cinema. You can follow her on Letterboxd and Twitter @kuntsuragi for weird and niche movie recommendations.

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