Film Review – Raw
Julia Ducournau’s French/Belgian horror film Raw reinterprets the emotional and physical strains of post-adolescents into a grisly genre masterwork. Within her gory exploration of common coming-of-age tropes, such as peer group hierarchies, the awkward discovery of sexuality and the love/hate whirlwind of sibling rivalry, Ducournau transforms the empathetic cringe moments of the usual Molly Ringwald styled comedy-drama into visceral, gag-inducing trauma. And if we’re being honest with ourselves, cold-blooded cannibalism is probably a more accurate emotional comparison for a teenager’s rickety transition into adulthood.
Familial relationships play a big part in the narrative. We’re first introduced to our mousy protagonist Justine (Garance Marillier) as she and her strict vegan parents are dining at a buffet. As Justine bites into a meatball that was mistakenly buried in her mashed potatoes, the family is immediately panicked, responding as if she had bitten into a cyanide capsule. Later, on their way to veterinary school, we see many shots of Justine longingly looking out of the car window, lost in that relatable malaise of feeling both afraid to venture out on her own and feeling excited to start an independent life. Once she arrives she runs into her older sister Alexia (Ella Rumpf) who is more than excited to corrupt the virginal Justine into the college life of pranks, parties and peeing outdoors. As the film reveals more about the inner workings of this family, their dynamics are challenged by Ducournau’s horror metaphors, but they’re never undercut or dismissed in favor of mindless bloodletting.
In the grand tradition of college films, Justine is thrown into series of degrading freshman hazing rituals. Her room is ransacked, she’s covered in blood and paint, and she’s forced to walk outside in her underwear to gather the belongings that were thrown out of the window of her dorm. This daily torture is exasperated by the fact that her new professors are less forgiving than her previous high school teachers and many of her new friends are begging to copy her work. Her only reliefs from these stresses come from her handsome but gay roommate Adrien (Rabah Nait Oufella), nightly booze-fueled dance parties and her new appreciate for raw flesh.
After being forced to eat a rabbit kidney as part of a cruel initiation, Justine becomes increasingly curious about the taste of other meat. First she tries to pocket a hamburger patty while waiting in the cafeteria lunch line, soon after she’s eating raw chicken cutlets out of the refrigerator in the middle of the night and after a routine bikini waxing goes horribly wrong, she ends up nibbling at the bare skin and muscles of her sister’s severed index finger.
The naturalized lead up to Raw’s cannibalism motifs is treated and reinforced by the character’s personal truths. Even as scenes descend into horrific depravity, the movie never loses sight of the emotional reality expressed within the screenplay’s core interest in human relationships. That said, Ducournau does not hold back on the movie’s wilder premise and she goes straight for the audience’s squirm-triggers with her body-horror imagery.
While the work of David Cronenberg, Catherine Breillat and Claire Denis may spring to mind, the DNA of much less high-minded genre-fare also lives within the execution of the text. The front engine that’s tugging along the sophisticated subtext has more in common with teenage werewolf and teenage vampire flicks than it does something as chin-scratching as 1996’s Crash or 1988’s Dead Ringers. The film has a wicked sense of humor and even as our protagonist is gnawing on the exposed brains of car-accident victims, the movie revels in its subversive audacity. This attitude of gleefully gagging the art-house elites also mirrors the lead character’s story arc. As Justine delves further into her dark, private obsessions, she rejects the coldly academic background that was encouraged by her restrictive upbringing.
Cronenberg is usually interested in sex as either a form of human biological function or an expression of gendered power dynamics, but his films have never treated the act with any sense of primal passion. Whereas his characters seem to engage in sex remote from their interior personhood, Justine’s carnal blood lust is inexorably tied to the formation of her new identity as a sexual being. Mind, body and emotion are blurred into an insatiable, monstrous passion. This is best exemplified in a scene where Justine ogles her new self in the mirror as she listens to explicit rap music on her headphones. Every teenager or young adult can relate to the feelings of empowerment that comes with the realization of their own sexual capital.
Nevertheless, while this feature is a very thoughtful and there’s a lot substance here to…chew on, when Ducournau shifts into horror mode she has no problem starring into abyss and letting the film be as disgusting as her characters will allow it to be. Key sequences, such as the nerve wracking escalation of the Brazilian waxing, were watched primarily through the creases between my fingers and will likely be too much for some viewers.
Raw is as unflinching and uncompromising as it is intelligent and sensitive. Its filmic depictions of sex and extreme violence are anchored by character-driven story beats and immersive, moody camera work. The central performances by Marillier and Rumpf and their portrayal of competitive sisterhood will hold the audience’s attention between the feature’s stylistic flourishes and its many gnarly shock moments. I can only hope that Raw’s well-earned reputation for causing walk-outs and bathroom rushes on the festival circuit will not overshadow its standing as a near perfect film.