Under the guise of a gross-out, body-horror B-movie comes a sly, pulsating, deviously smart ode to female empowerment and self-acceptance titled, simply, Raw. It follows a big-eyed, vegetarian virgin named Justine (Garance Marillier) who, in her harrowing first week at veterinary school, develops a spiraling addiction to eating the most forbidden of meats.
The bloody salvo of cannibalistic onscreen acts that have already earned French writer-director Julia Ducournau’s unconventional coming-of-age tale a strong reputation will have many audiences writing it off as nothing more than an exercise in revulsion, but the movie simply isn’t for them. This strange, sadistic movie is for that rare adventurer who considers Salo (1975) essential cinema, whose idea of a wholesome, feel-good family film is Let the Right One In (2008). Raw is a film whose beauty is only revealed to those with a wide-open mind and an iron stomach.
Justine’s first taste of meat isn’t actually all that gruesome: in a bizarre rite of passage, she and her fellow freshmen vet students are doused with blood-red paint and forced to eat a raw rabbit kidney. The putrid snack would be a major trauma for any strict vegetarian, and Ducournau’s off-balance, intoxicating visual style amplifies the anxiety. Justine’s gothy, upperclassman older sister Alexia (Ella Rumpf) broke free of their family’s meat-free mantra when she arrived for her freshman year, and now she’s bent on helping her little sister do the same.
It would indeed seem impossible for one to maintain a straight-laced lifestyle in the dank, poorly-lit halls of the school and its gloomy accompanying high-rise dormitory. On their first night, the first-years are subjected to a strange hazing ritual that sees them crawl on their hands and knees, like animals in herds, to a sex-fueled, drug-dizzy rave, and the debauchery doesn’t let up as the school year marches on. Justine seems at first unswayed by the dark allures of campus life, but her first taste of meat has awoken something wild within. She scarfs down her first shawarma without taking so much as a breath; then, we find her chomping on raw chicken breast by refrigerator light as a late-night snack.
The progression from herbivore to omnivore to carnivore to… well, you know what… is played to perfection by Ducournau and, more importantly, Marillier, whose performance crescendo is shockingly good, especially considering this is her first major project. The inevitable moment when Justine takes her first bite of forbidden flesh is as unsettling and vomit-inducing as one would expect, but there’s so much artistic purpose brought to the table by both actor and director that it’s also breathtakingly beautiful.
In the theater, you can expect a wide range of reactions. Some will laugh, some will leave. Some will cover their eyes, some will assume the fetal position and watch through splayed fingers, and others will drink in every second, delighting in the gory glory of it all. It’s scenes like these that make Raw so alive and thought-provoking and unforgettable.
There’s something about Ducournau’s sounds and imagery that sticks to the back of your mind like black tar. There’s a wit to her style that’s as fun as it is unsettling. In an early scene that sees the sisters venture into a dark room, the screen goes black. Suddenly, a piercing scream and a pulse of light. And another, and another, showing us sick glimpses of animal fetuses in glass jars. Ducournau makes sure the midnight-movie set gets their money’s worth.
But there’s much more depth to Raw than its vomit-inducing premise would lead you to believe. When the first drop of human blood hits Justine’s lips, it’s an introduction to the most unspeakable of appetites. But then again, whether it be sex or drugs or gambling or “Keeping Up With the Kardashians”, we all have our own personal unspeakable appetites, don’t we? This central metaphor is compelling on its own, but there are also themes of sisterhood, tradition, and obedience that add even more layers to the mix.
The actors’ performances are as detailed and inspired as the material, with Marillier and Rumpf making the sisters’ relationship feel both tender and extremely volatile. Just as impressive is Rabah Nait Oufella, who plays Justine’s supportive, sex-guru roommate.
It’s always a tricky endeavor recommending a movie like Raw to, well, anyone. Pardon the puns, but it’s an unquestionably difficult movie to swallow, and won’t be palatable to most moviegoers. If you’re willing to brave Ducournau’s lurid imagery, however, you’ll be treated to one of the most idiosyncratic, deceptively poignant movies of the Spring season. There’s a carefully crafted weave of progressive and primal ideas running throughout Raw that is ready and waiting to be uncovered and pondered for days on end… if you’ve got the stomach for it.