Director: Julia Ducournau
Stars: Garance Marillier, Ella Rumpf, Rabah Nait Oufella
The coming of age drama is easily mutated into the horror picture as filmmakers attempt to wrestle the incredible changes that we go through in our adolescence into dynamic narrative forms. Take Ginger Snaps, for example, in which Katharine Isabelle finds herself transforming into a werewolf as an extreme allegory for blossoming womanhood and menstruation. For genre fans Ginger Snaps has become something of a modern cult classic. Wholeheartedly joining it (and arguably beating it) is Julia Ducournau’s Raw, which garnered quite a reputation on the festival circuit last year and now arrives on home release here in the UK following an all-too-brief theatrical release.
Meet Justine (Garance Marillier), 16, fresh-faced vegetarian and new-starter at a prestigious veterinary college which her whole family has attended. Her older sister Alex (Ella Rumpf) is still enrolled. Justine characterises herself as an outsider, is socially awkward, shy, but not to an exceptional degree. A relatable level of introversion and otherness. Yet the school’s intensive hazing rituals intensify her predisposed self-consciousness. Fitting in becomes a primary concern. One of the demands of the seniors is that the rookie students eat raw meat. Reluctantly Justine acquiesces. Little is she aware at the time that this act will set her on an increasingly perverse and destructive course.
Ducournau takes the topic of sexual awakening and experimentation (something typified throughout vocational learning) and contorts it into a genre-inflected tale of morbid fascination and cannibalism. The result is far removed from the flock of cannibal related films that dominated the horror market in the early 80’s (mostly Italian, largely fixating on tribal terrors). Instead the sensibility is nearer that of, say, the Soska Sisters’ luminous American Mary, or David Cronenberg at his most transgressive. Raw feels considered, right down to just how graphic it becomes and when. It’s an intelligent film, a cold one, and a consistently engaging one.
Ducournau has us on the hook from the opening scene in which we see a figure, too small to recognise in the context of the frame, deliberately causing a car crash on a quiet road by darting out from the sidelines. It’s a bracing beginning, one which posits an intriguing mystery early on and also sets an emotional distance. The film that follows will gradually pull us closer to its characters, until we’re in uncomfortable proximity to their consuming obsession (pun totally intended).
Cronenberg came to mind because of his 1996 masterpiece Crash, an adaptation of the JG Ballard novel and a hypnotic treaty on the irrational nature of obsession. By removing something we can relate to from the equation, Cronenberg was able to present us an unfiltered view of pure human desire and how it hoodwinks reason. Raw follows a similar path. Justine’s appetite for raw meat and subsequently human flesh feels more like a sexual hunger; her appetite more satisfyingly quenched when the meat available is that of someone she knows or has affection for. She discovers that her sister has similar tastes, but when Alex provides Justine the opportunity to feed from strangers, Justine is repelled. Granted, the method by which Alex procures her sweet treats is itself deplorable, but the film otherwise shows us the conflicts and dangers Justine struggles with when her desires intersect with the important people in her life.
In this way the film also blooms as an extended metaphor for discovering the emotional complexities of sex. To the virgin adolescent the idea of sex remains abstract fantasy. On entering and exploring this world the deeper connections and ramifications (both positive and negative) become known. This is the journey Justine finds herself on, and the young Marillier thoroughly convinces. Her performance here covers a lot. She retains our sympathies even as her decisions become wildly unsound, yet she is also an occasionally hostile and volatile character. Hell, everyone makes a few bad decisions when they’re drunk.
Raw avoids the frequent genre trap of fetishising a young female protagonist. While Ducournau is by no means averse to placing her lead in sexual situations or having Justine express herself sexually, her gaze feels studious rather than lecherous. In this way the film retains its sense of clinical detachment, as though we are observing an experiment gone awry in order to learn from the findings. But Raw earns its name in more ways the one; Ducournau also allows Justine to feel deeply, express trauma and rage. Mixing these sensibilities runs the risk of tonal confusion, but the balance here is just right. One compliments the other. Observing this subject is fascinating.
The final scene felt slightly unnecessary for this viewer, appearing a little glib; a punchline that wasn’t asked for. Even so, it’s an enjoyable addition if taken in the spirit its intended. If it is found to be unwelcome then it is immediately forgivable thanks to the smart, energised work that makes up the rest of the film. Ducournau has made a significant debut here and genre lovers will embrace her. But it is worth stressing that Raw is not a straight-up horror. It is an engrossing drama with some strong content. This isn’t about jumps or scares, but it will almost certainly make you squirm. If you have the stomach for it, Raw is quite convincingly one of the best films of the year.