[NOTE: This is a re-post of our review from Fantastic Fest; Raw opens in limited release this weekend]
“Beautiful” and “classy” aren’t usually the first words that spring to mind when you think about cannibal films, but director Julia Ducournau manages to pull off both with her feature film debut Raw. It’s a stunning arrival for a new cinematic talent, demonstrating a clarity of vision and confidence of execution that makes for an insightful, nuanced film that’s difficult to pin down.
Raw earned a bit of notoriety for itself when an ambulance was called to the scene of a TIFF screening where two audience members passed out, and that may cast the film in a certain light, but it’s not an entirely accurate one. Cannibal horror may be an easy moniker to slap on, but while Raw is flawed, it is undoubtedly more complex than your average gross-out gore gag. In fact, it’s rather restrained with on-screen violence (though that is, of course, a matter of taste). It’s not that there’s an abundance of carnage that makes Raw a test to stomach, it’s that the little that’s there is is so effectively done. Ducournau is smart enough to know that chunks of flesh are nothing more than meat unless you care about the people they’re coming out of.
In essence, Raw is a college-set coming-of-age story between two sisters; there just happens to be some skin-crawling, flesh-eating moments along the way. It’s an examination of the awkward and uncomfortable years when we first step out of from the protection of our parents and start the messy process of finding out who we really are and what we really want…even the naughty stuff we know we shouldn’t. It’s also unexpectedly sexy with a streak of wry, irreverent humor that works as a highlighting contrast to the horrors along the way.
The film follows Justine (Garance Marillier), and idealistic virgin vegetarian (yes, the metaphors can be a bit on-the-nose), who is dropped off for her first year of veterinary college by her doting parents and immediately thrust into the madness and brutality of her school’s hazing rituals. Those rituals are fairly familiar — barked demands from her “elders”, buckets of blood, interrupted sleep and invasions of privacy, but her life-long innocence is all but instantly corrupted when she conforms to peer pressure (from her older, wiser sister no less) and chomps down a rabbit kidney. Justine immediately suffers a severe reaction that leads to rashes, peeling, and an intoxicating appetite for human flesh that grows more dangerous the more she indulges it.
As far as horror allegories go, cannibalism is right up there with vampirism as a means of exploring corruption and carnal desire, but it’s definitely the dirtier and messier of the two. Perhaps that’s what makes it so flawlessly fitting to Ducournau’s story about coming of age through carnage. Exploring independence is messy, and discovering who you really are is dirty work. Ducournau uses the eating of human meat as a metaphor for sexual awakening and experimentation (sexual and otherwise), but Raw is just as interested in how our identity and concept of self evolves through exploration, and cannibalism also comes to represent Justine’s changing understanding of herself — both where she comes from and where she’s going.
There is a provocative and engaging subplot between Justine and her older sister Alexia (Ella Rumpf) that drives Raw‘s deeper meanings home. To divulge too much would do a disservice, but Alexia essentially acts as a foil to Justine’s purity, the older sibling who’s already “learned the ropes” of their new found freedom and blurs the line between self-discovery and self-indulgence.
But Raw isn’t all allegory and overt metaphor (though there is a lot of that). Ducournau directs with a constant energy, using shots economically, and never letting the tension or the heady current of electricity burn out. One of Justine’s classroom scenes demonstrates the sedation of a horse — a clinical, no-nonsense maneuvering of meat, skin, and bone — and Ducournau tunes it to an unsettling pitch on par with the film’s gorier bits. In fact, I’d wager the folks at TIFF didn’t swoon over the more overtly carnal scenes. No, my money would be on a quiet moment about a bikini wax gone wrong (though I can almost guarantee, not in the way you’re expecting).
Raw is intimate, it’s relatable, and that means we can feel its bloody blows when they rain down. That realism and dedication to keeping it simple allows Justine’s bloody rights of passage to transcend sadism and schlock into something singular and special.
Raw enters limited release March 10.