Crashing in on a giant red wave of French extremity, Raw is one nastily daring debut from Julia Ducournau. Hazing rituals of a veterinary college make for a morbid playground of sexuality, feminism, and subversion in this body horror wonder, as smart as it is profane. As freshman Justine (Garance Marillier) struggles to assimilate to the indoctrination, she feels a growing urge for human flesh – but is this born of stress or a dormant natural instinct? Is it a coping mechanism or an exercise of self-actualization?
The liberation from Justine’s parents’ watchful eyes and into the dangers of the campus culture becomes its own evolution, an escape from the primordial ooze into its own Darwin’s law. The social strata of “elders” and “great ones” means the virginal protagonist is at the mercy of the system, an experienced older sister as much a destructive force as a nurturing one. With wit and a profound ability to gross you out with mere biology, Ducournau makes Justine’s struggle one with the species. Perhaps we’re not all that separate from the animals.
These physical and psychological extremes of a second coming of age are the film’s real fascination before any bloodshed. In a sense, the title refers to more than viscious flesh – it’s the emotion of receiving nature’s cruelty, its ability to humiliate, ostracize, and decide whether you are “other” or member. Shared trauma and camaraderie is only fleeting when survivalism is our truest trait.
At the core of Justine’s instincts both social and ferile is sex, her impulse for flesh-eating given an icky layer of orgasmic satisfaction. The cultural demands towards the newly sexual young woman are all at play here with damning social commentary, but without the allegory being too heavy handed. Or maybe the severity everywhere else make the film’s metaphors feel lighter.
Raw likely sounds like a weighty exercise, and it very much so is. Even its ample gallows humor is heavy – more of an arched eyebrow than a wink, and likely lost on some of its audience. By the final act, the audience is drained from the physical and mental workout the film provides. Its final attempt at provocation and definitiveness is a miscalculation, perhaps from running out of steam, but the film before it is a deftly composed cage of horrors of the mind and body.
In many regards, the film is of a piece with Alain Guiraurdie’s Staying Vertical for how it mines primalcy and gender to make the audience deeply terrified and disturbed by our own bodies. It’s final act gets hampered by plotting and perhaps pushing the extremity past the narrative’s tipping point, it never relents its gutsy provocative thrust.
With the scariest and most gag-inducing sound design and some unforgettable images, Raw is one of the boldest recent debuts. See it before dinner.