The emergence of Julia Ducorunau with her directing debut feature Raw marks the return of visceral, stomach churning yet thought provoking French horror that captivated North American audiences in the century’s first decade. Raw explores the “young woman coming of age story” using cannibalism as a metaphor. It’s 16 Candles meets exploitation films in this gory but compelling film.
Justine (Garance Marillier) begins her first year at veterinary school following in the footsteps of both her parents and her older sister Alexia (Ella Rumpf). Justine is considered the academic prodigy of the family while Alexia stands out as the uninhibited wild child.. Alternatively self-assured and unassuming Justine just wants to fade into the background at University in order to complete her coursework.
At first Justine finds the transition to university life difficult. Hazing laws much must be much different in France, if they exist at all, as the first year students endurer a week long bullying session by the “Elders” or upperclassman. On the first night at school Justine finds her room ransacked and she is dragged out of bed with all the other first years and forced to participate in an all night rave. She is body shamed by an upperclasswoman, and forced to abandon her conservative attire for party gesr to go to class. At one point she and all the other first year are drenched in animal blood and forbidden to wash the stains from their lab coats.
However it’s the forced consumption of raw rabbit kidney that triggers Justine’s metamorphosis. A strict vegetarian, Justine refuses the item until being force-fed it by her sister. Justine’s skin breaks out in a horrific rash that evening. The school nurse prescribes her itch cream and recommends she just fade into the background during the hazing ritual. Instead, Justine begins to explore new sides to her self. She begins sneaking in servings of meat, going so far as to bite into a hunk of raw chicken. This new taste for flash culminates with Justine eating Alexis’ severed finger after a grooming consult goes awry in grotesque and darkly comic fashion.
The audience learns both Alexia and Justine share similar cravings. It will Justine seeks to keep this newfound part of her under wraps or at least give into it in private Alexia has embraced the side of her. She attempts to take Justine under her wing and only to find kid sister repulsed after Alexis demonstrates her method of procuring human meat. Meanwhile Justine begins to explore other facets of her personality she devils in drugs and alcohol, begins to dress in a more provocative fashion, and even initiates her first sexual encounter with her male, gay roommate Adrien.
Ducourneau isn’t first director to explore the choppy waters that exist between adolescence and young adulthood. However few films to match Raw for sheer intensity and graphic detail. Raw peels back the curtain on the early days of University where for the first time young men and women are no longer under the watchful eye of parents and teachers all hours of the day. This new found freedom gives these children the chance to explore all facets of themselves. For Justine, who is always been considered the good girl of the family, this freedom represents the chance for her to let loose and indulge in her forbidden fantasies. The idea of consuming human flesh acts as an apt metaphor for sexual exploration and growth. Her blood lust builds up in a fervor pitch, and she finds herself trying to devour the objects of her affection. When she eats human flesh she enters an almost orgasmic state of bliss.
Raw not only concerns itself with the transition to adulthood, but also with how that transformation takes place under public scrutiny. There are two moment when Justine loses all control. The first is a public humiliation at the hands of Alexia, where a drunken Justine makes a spectacle of herself. The confrontation between the two sisters in the aftermath is the second. In both cases, Justine suffers through debasement while dozens of onlookers film her on their smart phones rather than lend a hand. The message is clear. Justine is on her own, and every mistake she makes opens her up to ridicule and condemnation.
Raw wrestles with the shaping and development of self-identity. Even as Justine explores her sexuality and cravings for flesh she struggles to keep a foot in the world where she’s considered the good-girl and academic star pupil. Her intelligence intimidates her schoolmates, which makes her descent all the more gratifying to them. Her gay male roommate is out in public, yet he struggles with his more than platonic feelings for Justine. Their relationship evolves from an almost sibling set of kinship to something more feral as the events progress. Indeed, Adrien serves as a stand in for Alexia as the two sisters have a distant relationship at the film’s start. It’s not until the two girls grow closer that Justine begins to see Adrien in a more sexual light. She then views him as a possession, warning her sister off him as an animal would fend off other predators as it devours its prey.
At one thousand words into this review, it feels like the surface has barely been scratched at the myriad of ways Raw offers itself up to viewer examination. Ducournau’s debut work is so self-assured and polished that it feels unfair. As it stands, Raw marks the emergence of an exciting new voice in genre filmmaking, and one hopes the return of the French horror scene that dominated conversation for almost a decade. It’s not for the faint of heart, as two patrons at the Toronto screening passed out during an intense scene. However, for the discerning horror fan, Raw offers rich thematic material to chew on for days.