Justine (Garance Marillier) is a new veterinary student taking the transition from home to university a little harder than her peers. She over-drinks like everyone else, explores confusing sexual feelings and ends up on too many leering camera phones, but who hasn’t? College is the time to test the limits oflust, intoxication and academic rigor. But Justine is undergoing another type of change, one that isn’t part of rush week depravity and she’s a bit confused about whether her upper-classman sister Alexia (Ella Rumpf) will understand. After Justine wakes up in bed with her roommate near the end of the movie, she stares solemnly into the mirror like so many screen teens before her, assessing how much she’s changed. But this is not a typical coming-of-age movie and Justine is wishing that her regrets were simply carnal.
Raw is hungry for the ecstasy and ugliness of the human body. In college, when people are perhaps at their most beautiful (or at least beautifully unaged) and their urges are least restrained, the teen comedy take on fraternal excess doesn’t explicate the dangers of a hedonistic attitude. Raw sinks its teeth deep into that idea. Director Julia Ducournau nabbed honors at Cannes and Toronto for this feature-length debut that, alongside films like It Follows, Green Room, and even The Purge, push the horror genre toward an ideological craftsmanship. It’s less of a horror film than say the Babadook which held up a gothic grotesquery to lure audiences into a mature thriller about the dangers of grief. Raw is really a fable, a cannibalistic twist on the adolescent experience. Though humans are just meat-bags, Raw posits peer pressure is not a good enough reason to bow to such crude reductionisms.
As Juliet takes part in the hazing rituals of the upper-classmen, the once staunch vegetarian is pushed to eat a raw rabbit kidney. Soon after, she breaks out in a full-body rash and begins the steep descent into a carnivorous diet. Raw isn’t a buckets-of-blood grindhouse flick. It gets far more mileage out of a girl chewing on (and later regurgitating) her own hair than the bloody car wrecks that pop up throughout. It is a practical gore-fest that’s far more gristly than out-and-out brutal. The French-Belgian film doesn’t exactly belong in the canon of New French Extremity but Ducournau lingers on shocking scenes with much the same spirit of complicit punishment. Whereas Gaspar Noe’s troublesome morality could be called a social commentary, his twisted style and focus are the draw. Raw is held together by the humanity in its characters and especially the relationship between Justine and Alexia.
But just as vivid are the parallels between human and animal. The veterinary-school setting is filled with unsettling interactions between the two, such as an early scene where a group of freshman help tranquilize and transport a horse. This interaction is a normal part of vet work, but the tremendous size of the equine is an uncanny glimpse into the evolutionary power human minds wield over physically superior animals. When Juliet accidentally scissors off Alexia’s finger-tip as part of a botched Brazilian waxing (you read that correctly), their pet German Shepard comes into frame in search of a treat. We’re expecting the dog to find the severed digit, but Raw is not a movie about unsavory animal behaviors. And there is a strong argument that the film reflects the audience’s appetite for gore as much as the character’s appetite. Justine chews at the finger like a buffalo wing, in a perfect parallel to an earlier scene depicting a late-night shawarma feast. It serves the viewer more than the character. Audiences should know what they are getting into.
Since Raw doesn’t bring much animal cruelty to the table, Ducournau does not appear to be making a case for treating all God’s creatures better. Instead Raw serves up the unpalatable indulgences of vice and corruption that draw the characters and the audience a little closer to their own creature-ness. Raw will satisfy gore hounds and art house audiences alike but this vicious tale bucks the average viewer with ease. You probably won’t need the barf bags being passed out at screenings, but for most it’s grimy exterior will leave a bad taste in your mouth.