Movie Review: Raw

Raw, written and directed by Julia Ducournau in her feature film debut, is a French horror drama that defies genre conventions and oozes with transgressive sexual metaphors. The film tells the cannibalistic, coming-of-age story of a young veterinary student named Justine (played by Garance Marillier in a captivating performance), who transforms from a sheltered vegetarian into an insatiable carnivore (literally and figuratively). Sounds great, right?

This is a great horror movie. Period. Unfortunately, whenever a novel horror film is released to critics and film festivals before the average film goer gets a chance to watch it, the media hype inevitably infects the normal population with inappropriate expectations. Raw is no exception. When it was screened back in 2016, the film gained notoriety for being so extreme, and so visceral, that some audience members fainted and vomited during the screening. These film urban legends made me think that I was about to experience the next Martyrs. 

Make no mistake, the film does feature powerful (and disturbing) visuals, but not in the no-holds-barred, over-the-top way that most would envision after hearing the fainting rumors. Such sensational stories lead to preconceptions that ultimately taint the film experience for regular audiences because their expectations aren’t in alignment with the actual viewing experience. Fortunately, I was able to adjust from my preconceived notions of the movie and enjoyed this film. However, I think it’s safe to say that a more casual horror enthusiast might not be able to stomach the dissonance between expectation and reality.

The family stops by a cafeteria on the way to drop Justine off at veterinary school, the same institution where Justine’s older sister, Alexia (aptly played by Ella Rumpf) attends. Strict vegetarians, Justine’s parents are mortified when Justine almost bites into a piece of meat hidden in her mashed potatoes. Her mother frantically asks if she bit into the meat, but Justine reassures her that she didn’t. Livid, the mother berates the staff and the family abruptly heads to the school, where they say their goodbyes.

It immediately becomes clear that French vet schools have a lot in common with college fraternities. Justine meets her roommate, Adrien, a gay male whose rugged masculinity isn’t masked by any flamboyancy. All of the freshman ‘rookies’ are then gathered together for a hazing ritual. After the newbies are educated on the guidelines for the rush week, they’re taken to debaucherous rave in the basement where alcohol flows freely and clothing is optional. Justine feels out of place but quickly finds Alexia. The two exchange a few words and Justine tries to retire to bed early. Unfortunately for her, Adrien is enjoying a nice blowjob and she’s forced to wait until her roommate’s male guest finishes.

The next morning brings more hazing rituals. All of the upperclassmen pour blood over the newcomers and force each one to eat raw rabbit kidneys. Justine tries to get out of it due to her vegetarianism but Alexia forces her to eat the kidneys because she claims that Justine will be labeled as an outcast otherwise. Justine soon develops a bizarre rash and goes to a doctor, who dismisses it as food poisoning and gives her medicinal cream. She begins experiencing cravings for meat. At lunch, Justine tries to steal a sausage from the breakfast line, but Adrien notices. She feels guilty for betraying her vegetarian values, so Adrien takes her off campus so that she can be a carnivore out in the open.

Justine’s cravings become more severe. After Alexia teases her about her unkempt pubic region, Justine submits to a bikini wax. Before the wax, Justine notices the same medicinal cream in Alexia’s medicine cabinet. Alexia enjoys making her sister scream in pain in between each wax and a freak accident with a pair scissors severs Alexia’s finger and she faints. Justine immediately picks up the finger so that Alexia’s dog won’t eat it. Curiosity gets the better of her and she tastes it. The sampling awakens a beast inside of her and she ends up devouring the entire finger. Alexia wakes up and witnesses Justine finishing it. The next day, Alexia takes Justine to a country road and throws herself in front of a car. The car skids off the road and crashes into a tree. The passengers are killed instantly. Alexia goes over to the car and Justine learns that her cannibalistic impulses are a family affair.

The rest of the film showcases the remaining stages of Justine’s transformation and Alexia’s struggles with her impulses. In terms of Justine’s sexuality, innocence morphs into deviance. In terms of her diet, vegetables are replaced with human flesh…

I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again, French translates better into English subtitles than any other language. When I reviewed A Serbian FilmI noted how the Serbian dialogue didn’t translate well into English. It read clunky and at times, comical. Fortunately, there’s no awkward casualties of translation.  These are some of the best written characters that I’ve seen in a horror movie in recent memory.

The writer/director’s European culture and sensibility inject a rawness into each of the characters. There’s no trite facades that mask temptations or frustrations or insecurities. This characteristic is embodied by the school itself. The students are free to do ABSOLUTELY whatever they want. There is virtually no adult supervision. It’s like Children of the Corn with college students. Mass hazing, bloody brawls and legendary parties all occur on school property. The feral, hormonal depravity of youth is completely unregulated. I’m not sure if my perception is just a symptom of an American upbringing, but I feel that each character’s uninhibited transparency is a perfect metaphor for the movie’s title (Raw).

Garance Marillier’s portrayal of Justine is one of the most authentic representations of sexual awakening that I have ever seen. I always thought Teeth did this well in a tongue-in-cheek way, but the scope of the metamorphosis that we see in Justine is staggering. The fact that such a rapid character arc didn’t feel rushed to me is another testament to how well Justine is written and acted by Marillier. She begins the film as a sheltered vegetarian (a not-so-hidden metaphor for virginity and sexual inexperience) and is adamant on staying true to her values (abstinence). Gradually, the lurid culture of the school and the titillating allure of human meat refine Justine into her true self, fulfilled by the taste of flesh and enlightened by carnal knowledge. The evolution of her sexual identity progresses on a parallel track with her cannibalistic audacity. In the beginning, she is innocent, awkward but cute and by the end, she is worldly, confident and sexy.

The other two supporting characters are also stellar. Alexia is the template of boundless indulgence that Justine is drawn to during the course of her transformation. Alexia has tasted the fruit of knowledge of good and evil and it’s every bit as good as she thought. She doesn’t want her younger sister to stay sheltered by her parents’ strict vegetarianism. She knows that Justine lusts for the same thing that she does and desperately wants a partner to share her dark secret with. She’s vulgar and messy, but also sexy and spontaneous.

Adrien’s character has an odd dichotomy. He is both a friend and a brotherly protector, but also a corrupter. He’s Justine’s friend. He takes care of her and almost intervenes when another student tries to take advantage of her. Despite his homosexuality, his athletic figure and social confidence ignites a desire within Justine, not unlike the corrupting taste of meat. The actor, Rabah Naït Oufella, does a phenomenal job of not making the mainstream Hollywood mistake of peppering the character with gay stereotypes. Adrien is a robust, masculine character, not a punchline.

Raw is an exquisitely filmed picture. The labs filled with animal carcasses, the gray spartan hallways and the Soviet-like, industrial aesthetic of the school are brilliantly captured by minimalist cinematography that cleverly plays with shadow and light. The score by Jim Williams boils beneath the surface with low tones for much of the film and, when the time is right, lashes out at the viewers’ ears with shrill strings like a killer lying in wait. The score accents key moments without distracting from the visual drama.

The makeup effects are also strong. At one point during the film, an unlucky character gets a large chunk of its leg devoured. That scene showcases some impressive SFX. Due to the film’s reputation as shocking and over-the-top, many viewers will watch this movie expecting Saw level carnage. The violence shown here is shocking, but the thrust of the narrative is just as responsible for the emotions of disgust as the makeup is.

Raw is a fascinating film about sexual awakening and the journey from innocence to experience. It’s particularly awesome that the writer/director envisioned this erotic metaphor through the lens of cannibalism. I would consider this movie a horror movie. However, the intellectual nature of the film coupled with the heavy symbolism will turn off some less adventurous viewers. Referring back to my criticism at the beginning of this review, this film’s reputation will lead many to disappointment.

Raw doesn’t have jump scares. It doesn’t have chase scenes. This is a psychological drama whose horror emanates from the fact that each of us have vices that overwhelm us at different times during the course of our lives. It’s a film that wants to make you uncomfortable and then examine the nature of your discomfort. If you are looking for House of the Dead mayhem with this film, you will be disappointed. If you come to it with no preconceptions and an open mind, I think you’ll be pleasantly disgusted.

RATING: ΩΩΩΩ – TANTRIC ORGASM – I will trade my soul for more of this.

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Scale:

Ω – PAINFUL – Suffering through this was cruel and unusual punishment.

ΩΩ – I’VE HAD BETTER – This didn’t rock my world but it was better than a nut tap.

ΩΩΩ – GOOD – My life was enriched because of this.

ΩΩΩΩ – TANTRIC ORGASM – I will trade my soul for more of this.

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