by Ren Zelen
The title of the movie may be ‘Raw‘ but one could never accuse Julia Ducournau’s film of being undercooked. It’s a zesty stew of body horror, psychological analysis, social commentary and a uniquely disturbing coming-of-age tale. It’s not to everyone’s taste, but I’m willing to bet that you won’t have sampled anything quite like it.
Raw begins as Justine (Garance Marillier) travels with her parents to begin her studies at a prestigious veterinary school. It is the place where her parents met and it is where her older sister, Alexia (Ella Rumpf), is currently a student.
Immediately the course begins, the upperclassmen – including Justine’s brazen and headstrong older sister- inflict a barrage of humiliating hazing rituals upon Justine and the other freshmen. Similarly to Abel Ferrara’s vampire horror The Addiction, the university here proves to be a battleground of dominance and submission. The newbies are woken in the middle of the night and forced to crawl through underground tunnels in their underwear in order to take part in bacchanalian basement parties.
In a climactic ritual, Carrie-like, the freshmen have buckets of pig’s blood dumped on them and are lined up in order to be bullied into eating a raw rabbit kidney each. Justine comes from a strictly vegetarian family, and is initially repulsed and resistant to this test. She only succumbs when her sister Alexia pressures her into swallowing the meat, refusing to have her appear a wimp.
The experience gives Justine a virulently allergic reaction, but also, an unexpected newfound craving. Justine soon succumbs to her hunger, starting out with beef shawarma and raw chicken straight out of the fridge, before a random accident involving her sister awakens an appetite for rarer victuals.
It is probably no spoiler to indicate that Raw is a movie about cannibalism, but although it invokes the body horror of Cronenberg, it likewise offers much more. This horror/drama movie, ostensibly about a hunger for human flesh, examines the notions of sexuality – where one feels the desire to literally consume the object of one’s lust.
Raw also deals with body image, and specifically female body image. A female doctor gives a monologue about the desperation that a fat girl feels to lose weight so that she might ‘fit-in’, and Justine herself, although already wafer slim, is told she is more attractive when she fasts and becomes yet thinner. There are semi-jokey student conversations about anorexia as a common response to the trauma of rape.
In this kind of social climate, eating itself becomes a fetishized activity for females and consuming the flesh of humans becomes a strangely appropriate metaphor. During the brutal hazing rituals, the freshmen have to swallow their individuality, their pride and their sense of self. The forced swallowing of meat therefore, ironically becomes Justine’s personal initiation into self-knowledge.
Justine begins to develop cravings for her gay roommate Adrien (Rabah Nait Oufella) which are ostensibly sexual, yet Ducournau so intertwines Justine’s burgeoning sexuality with her desire for flesh-as-food, that it becomes impossible to dissociate one urge from the other.
The way in which Ducournau conflates these appetites is repugnant, but we see Justine struggling with her desires and trying to come to terms with her own identity and with the knowledge that she does not ‘fit in’. She wrestles with the more dangerous instincts of her nature, but has no idea how to control them. Despite her unorthodox situation, her insecurity helps her to remain relatable.
Although Justine is a fascinating central character, (a stunningly brave performance by Marillier) it is the relationship between the two sisters that intrigues and mystifies. Big sister Alexia is not an immediately sympathetic character, and frustrates by blowing hot and cold.
As Alexia discovers Justine’s unusual ‘eating disorder’ her reaction is not immediately obvious. She covers up her sister’s proclivity, but then, to Justine’s astonishment, Alexia reveals that she has similar inclinations by showing her little sister a way to indulge her appetites without getting caught.
Alexia’s character is a conundrum – she is protective, but lapses into acts of cruelty, culminating in a horrific betrayal. The newfound closeness of the sisters veers back and forth from bloody rivalry to mutual support and loyalty which the viewer may find perplexing, but then, perhaps that’s what many familial relationships are like?
However, as Justine gives into yearnings that are diametrically opposed to the vegetarian, humane philosophy under which she was raised, she becomes more confident and powerful in her own identity and sexuality.
Despite being reminiscent of Jorge Michel Grau’s We Are What We Are, John Fawcett’s Ginger Snaps and the body horror of David Cronenberg, Raw displays its own singular voice. Ducournau’s film is lurid, visually striking and full of images that will shock. Together with cinematographer Ruben Impens’s fevered images and use of colour (including a fabulously sensual paint scene) and Jim Williams’s chilling score, Ducournau creates a nightmarish fable which slyly examines some of the monstrous aspects of trying to ‘fit in’ to the roles sanctioned by society.
Recently, many of the movies I have seen herald a welcome return to the tradition of social commentary within the horror genre. It has been particularly gratifying to see this resurgence spearheaded by female filmmakers who are able to express themselves so confidently in what has traditionally been a male-dominated genre.
Female filmmakers appear to have plenty of material to contribute and to enliven the horror genre, if only we have the stomach to take it.
Raw is out on DVD & Blu-Ray now!