Starring: Garance Marillier, Ella Rumpf, Rabah Nait Oufella
Director: Julia Ducournau
Running Time: 99 mins
Synopsis: Strict vegetarian Justine (Marillier) faces a series of brutal hazing rituals during her first week of Veterinarian School, involving blood, bullying and her first experience at eating meat. After this she begins to suffer a series of terrible and unexplained consequences that begin to reveal her true nature.
Whenever there is talk of early screening ‘fainting’ and audience members leaving in their droves to vomit, like what the french horror drama Raw faced during its first Sundance screening, you have to take it with a pinch of salt. Usually the result of a marketing gimmick, or a media that like to accentuate things to an extreme level in order to generate chatter, they never really speak to the reality of how full on a film truly is. Raw, a surface level cannibal film but what is actually a whole lot more, is certainly unflinching in the events it depicts, but they are never exploitative or sensationalist rather built naturally through character whilst anchored by the assured hand of director Julia Ducournau.
We follow newbie student Justine (Marillier) as she ventures to her first year in a prestigious Veterinarian School, but not before an uncomfortable stop off at a roadside cafe where we see first hand the strict vegetarian upbringing fostered by her fierce mother. Justine’s sister is also a member of the same school, educationally and culturally, but it is telling that she is not present for Justine’s arrival. Before she can settle in Justine is roused from her slumber by the first of a series of hard hitting hazing rituals (so full on that it makes you wonder how this school has seemingly escaped investigations into this activity). Ducournau films all this with a steady confident hand, notably in the scenes of hard partying wherein the camera floats gracefully and clearly throughout the carnage without the tendency to shake the camera (a move that most filmmakers roll out when trying to portray hedonistic scenes).
Coming upon her sister during one of these parties it is clear that Justine and Alexia (Rumpf) share a tight bond, but it is immediately apparent that this school has turned Alexia into something unusual. The trigger point is clearly the moment where all new recruits must chow down on raw rabbits liver, a moment that Justine resists before the forceful pressure of her sister comes to play. From this point the film slowly and meticulously morphs into a David Cronenbourg-esque piece of body horror. Justine’s body reacting in unexpected ways, suffice to say Ducournau makes scratching your body turn into something genuinely unnerving, no doubt thanks to the pervasive sound design.
After this the film twists and morphs into things you cannot expect. As mentioned Ducournau remains unflinching in her perspective, but never feels the need to play into the horror through overbearing sound design or drawn out shots of dripping grue. In fact there is a remarkable restraint here, relying more on tone and performance to sell the extreme events. Don’t get me wrong there are certainly a few set-pieces that will linger long in the memory, especially a graphic Brazilian wax that takes a darker visceral turn. This scene is endemic of the whole piece in that it is merely a tool to delve into far deeper themes.
In fact one of the only real issues with Raw is that there are almost too many bigger symbolic meanings going on here. We have the coming-of-age complexities around burgeoning sexuality (Justine’s first encounter of this kind is animalistic and bloody), sisterly tension, educational pressure, and come the films brilliant final shot a look at familial legacy. Writer and director Ducournau just about contains all these lofty messages with a remarkable balance of tone (a nice through-line of humour is welcome) and a female eye that truly beguiles. A standout moment conveys the female sexual gaze with more clarity and potency than any film I’ve ever seen. Underneath all the blood and gore you can see the familiar brushstrokes of a typical High-School movie, with its confusion over sex, peers and body image giving new focus through the genre trappings of a cannibal movie.
It certainly helps that the cast give committed captivating performances. Garance Marillier as Justine is a formidable presence, starting out as somewhat quiet and observant figure before realising the power her body has. Marillier’s physicality begins to change in subtle ways, exuding the confidence of a burgeoning hunger but never forgetting the vulnerabilities that this brings forward. Rumpf more than matches as the viciously temperamental older sister. Nursing years of resentment to this younger brighter charge (Justine is told repeatedly that she is some sort of genius but in a sly dig at the educational class system it is seen as a hindrance by the faculty), Alexia treats her sister with disdain, affection and confusion equally. Their interplay is the beating heart of the film and the outcome of this violent relationship is devastating. Notably for Nait Oufella who plays Justine’s gay roomate Adrien. An unwitting player in this family tragedy, he gives a confident layered performance as the depths of Justine’s metamorphosis challenges the expectations he has on himself, sexually and ethically.
This is Julia Ducournau’s film though, and she stuns with her control and confidence. Never tempted to give into what a lot of young filmmakers do by over-egging the visuals or attempting too many ‘arty’ tricks in a bid to impress. No, she has the belief in her material and her cast to do the talking, in doing so marking her out as vital, expressive and powerful new voice in international cinema. Raw is an exceptional work.
Verdict: An intense, uncompromising cannibal drama, that never sacrifices subtext for genre thrills. Raw uses superior craft and a unique female perspective to deliver arresting cinema. See it, love it, fainting is optional.