Outside of its TIFF write-up I knew next to nothing about Raw, French director Julia Ducournau’s “coming of age cannibalism” film. The buzz has been reserved for heavy hitters like Blair Witch, but a film like Raw proves that sometimes going into a screening with little knowledge and no expectations is actually the best way to enjoy a film.
Because Raw is a huge, satisfying surprise.
Midnight Madness programmer Colin Gedes introduced the film by placing it in the company of extreme French horror films like A L’interieur, Frontieres, and Martyrs which a pretty crazy list to be associated with. And, in fact, Raw earns those comparisons with wit, style and gore aplomb.
Raw tells the story of 16 year old Justine (Garance Marillier) who arrives at university to become a vet like the rest of her family. She’s a devout vegetarian, another quality that runs in the family, but her dietary preferences immediately put her in a compromised situation when an early hazing ritual forces her to consume rabbit kidneys. The encounter also clarifies that her older, rebellious self-described black sheep sister Alexia (Ella Rumpf) is now an enthusiastic consumer of meat.
Consuming meat sets Justine down a dark path. She develops a bizarre rash that she can’t stop scratching (the first example of the film’s love of squirm-inducing body horror-esque visuals). She develops a taste for flesh that she can’t seem to control and her hunger begins to dictate her actions, making her increasingly unstable and dangerous. Alexia seems to encourage this transformation (the sibling rivalry drama between the girls is palpable), especially after she witnesses Justine indulging her new hobby following a disastrous attempt at sisterly bonding over Brazilian waxing. The resulting scene, as Justine ponders and then consumes the spoils of the accident, had the TIFF audience on the edges of our seats in disgust and appreciation. It is a show stopper.
Running parallel to Justine’s new culinary diet is her sexual awakening. A substantial part of the film is dedicated to the debased, humiliating hazing rituals that the assholish “elder” veterinary students putt the “newbies” through. The sexualized nature of these activities is a vital component of the film and something that Justine initially struggles with. At the start of the film, her parents fret about her because she is shy and introverted; an early scene at a dance also makes it clear that she is sexually inexperienced. As Justine’s hunger for meat grows, so too do her other urges. When the hunger for sex and meat finally intersect the result is one of the most uncomfortable and anxiety-provoking sex scenes in recent memory.
Ducournau’s script is filled with these kinds of witty observations about female sexuality and agency. An ER Doctor candidly speaks about body shaming, a random classmate offers unsolicited advice for throwing up and the hazing frequently takes on a gender-specific dynamic such as the day when girls are told to dress sluttier. I was frequently reminded of the way that Canadian horror classic Ginger Snaps mined the same territory to similarly fantastic results. In fact one of Raw’s greatest strengths is its ability to balance its pointed commentary with its horrific and comedic elements.
At the end of the day Raw is an extremely confident film that will satisfy both gore hounds and purveyors of smart horror. It is one of the most surprising films of the fest and should be particularly appealing to audiences who appreciate France’s brand of extreme horror. It is highly, highly recommended.