When your debut feature film receives attention for containing materials that causes audience members to faint, one must wonder what that says about your capabilities as an artist/provocateur. This did indeed happen when French director Julia Ducournau screened her film Raw at The Toronto Film Festival last fall, and it’s an ugly fact that’s been latched onto the film up to its wide release in the States (premiering ahead of its release in Europe).
Ducournau went on to say that she was shocked to hear of this and also dismayed because she felt that cinema shouldn’t be something that can possibly inflict harm on viewers. Regardless, there’s little doubt that the press headlines helped Raw get a distributor, and hopefully it will attract horror fans to catch a movie that’s leagues more subdued than your standard gorefest. In fact, in many ways Raw is anything but a shocker.
Justine (Garance Marillier) is a shy college freshman that has been forced by her family to be a vegetarian her whole life. Upon coming to veterinarian school, the same one attended by her sister Alexa (Ella Rumpf), Justine finds herself exposed to a hedonistic culture that revels in drugs and sex. Of even more alarm, however, is that she gets her first taste of meat. Upon doing so, our character discovers she has an animalistic hunger for human flesh!
It’s a campy concept, especially for a film that’s playing exclusively at arthouse cinemas, but Raw pulls off the tricky feat of being both disturbing and darkly humorous. Julia Ducournau finds success in this by making the world of her film familiar in a lot of ways while also incorporating a plethora of exaggerated elements. For example, the film is easy to read as an allegory about the troubles one faces when entering their freshman year at college, especially when coming from a sheltered adolescence. The unnamed school that Justine attends abounds with a student-created fraternity (she gets her first taste of meat during an initiation ritual) that feels real for anyone that made the most of their debaucherous years while in undergrad, yet it also feels tongue-in-cheek.
The world of veterinary school is rarely explored in fiction, and while the science on display feels real (it even includes a brief shot of a horse enema), everything else about the student body (dress attire, attitudes towards sex, mannerisms) feels closer to that of a liberal arts college. Perhaps Ducournau intended to combine the two worlds, feeling they’d be the ideal avenues for her sense of female-centric body-horror.
So is the movie really as nauseating as its Toronto screening suggested? Well, it’s visceral with the fluids on display, and Justine’s descent into cannibalism is unsettling and at times even slightly voyeuristic. Still, the film leaves the more graphic scenes to the imagination, and the shots of gore tend to be brief and never exploitative. Instead, the film is more interested in showcasing the female body and the various metamorphoses that Justine goes through.
Being away from her family for the first time in her life, college has giving Justine a great sense of liberty. She’s able to be more wild and promiscuous, an agenda that her sister Alexa has embraced and wants to share. It’s the scenes that these two sisters have that particularly resonate in Raw, which gain added value when thought about in hindsight. Their relationship ranges from comical to disturbing to both, but Justine and Alexa feel fully human as sisters, and it enhances the tragedy that befalls them in the film’s last act.
Still, there is an Achilles heel to the film that keeps it from being truly great, and it sadly rests in Ducournau’s ambitious themes that don’t always gel as well as they should. There are a few unanswered questions in the film that could have led to more developed characterizations if properly addressed. For example, it’s safe to assume that Justine’s parents didn’t feed her meat knowing that she had a cannibalism gene, yet why did they send her away to study a field that regularly researches the anatomy of animals?
Also, sorely underdeveloped is the love triangle the two sisters have with male lead Adrien (Rabah Nait Oufella). Adrien is a non-closeted gay but very friendly with the two sisters, who both ostensibly find him attractive. When he does end up in bed with Justine (hardly a spoiler as it’s in the trailer), it isn’t exactly clear why he accepts. For this reason, Adrien often comes off as more of a totem pole for thematic material rather than a fully fleshed character, and it probably would have helped if his homosexuality was dropped all together.
Despite these shortcomings, Raw is a highly original horror film that should find a bit of audience here in the states. It has been known that France is a decidedly difficult country to get genre films made in, with many filmmakers leaving the country to have their films made in the states where the studio system is less oppressive in letting artists make the pictures they want. The 33-year-old Julia Ducournau, however, has not only succeeded in making her picture within her home country, but it’s also a very European film with universal appeal. An exhilarating debut feature for Ducournau, and it will be most interesting to see how she progresses.
See also: Review: Get Out (2017)
Peter Foy is an avid reader and movie buff, constantly in need to engage his already massive pop-culture lexicon. You can find out more about him at his blog-site Redgunner5.