Raw (2016)

Raw first published by Little White Lies

“It’s not me.”

With nothing in her own wardrobe that conforms to the ‘night club’ dress code imposed by her university seniors, virginal student Justine (Garance Marillier) is trying on a party dress of her older, more experienced sister Alexia (Ella Rumpf) – but it does not feel like her.

It is Justine’s first week in veterinary college – the alma mater of her overprotective parents (Laurent Lucas, Joana Preiss), and the current digs of wayward, rebellious Alexia. So Justine has several big shoes to fill, even if she is not sure whether any of them quite fits. Meanwhile, it is ‘Rush Week’, a hazing rite of passage in which ‘rookies’ like Justine and her gay roommate Adrian (Rabah Nait Oufella) are bullied and (literally) blooded by seniors into finding their path, their fancies and themselves in the bigger world of adulthood and independence.

So, as Justine flies the nest only to have to negotiate just how far she is willing to fall from the tree, and as all these young initiates stretch their wings and test the limits of their desire, Julia Ducournau’s francophone feature debut Raw deals with classic coming-of-age themes. Except, as anyone who has heard the hyped stories of fainting in the aisles at the Toronto International Film Festivals will suspect, Raw is also a genre film. With her parents, Justine shares a strict vegetarianism from which Alexia, since leaving home, has secretly lapsed – and once, as part of Rush Week, Justine has been driven to eat a rabbit’s kidney, she will discover a taste for raw flesh that she clumsily struggles as much to resist as to indulge.

Cannibalism here is both metaphor and reality. The triggering of Justine’s bloodlust coincides with her sexual awakening, and with her first tentative steps into womanhood, making her peculiar condition a clear figure for the emergence of unrestrained, animalistic appetites – and while she is the film’s focus, we see other characters exploring the boundaries of their own self-image and identity, be it Adrian’s uneasy flirtation with heterosexual encounters, another student’s obsession with monkey rape, and a third’s impulse to lick her partner’s eyeballs. All these transgressions represent poetic exaggerations of everyday adolescent experimentation— except that it is also made clear that such dangerous acts of extreme self-realisation, unless played out within safe confines, can leave real-world scars.

While horror is often filtered through the male gaze, Ducournau’s film shows a refreshing preference for the erotics of the female eye, reducing male objects of desire to mere meat and bone. Justine may be unsure of herself and uncomfortable in her own skin (the words quoted at the beginning of the review are emblematic of her character’s provisional status), but that does not make her in any way a pushover or a victim. Asked by her (female) doctor how she sees herself, Justine replies “average” – and indeed Raw merely exposes the everyday monstrousness we all harbour within our soft, fragile exteriors, and the accommodations we have to make with our darker nature.

Summary: Director-to-watch Julia Ducournau delivers horror with plenty of meat on the bone.

© Anton Bitel