(WARNING: This article contains spoilers for Raw. Proceed with whatever level of caution your dietary restrictions recommend.)
Raw is the latest horror film by French filmmaker Julia Ducournau, and if the title brings an unappetizing image to your mind, then you're already on the right track for what lies ahead. Some audiences detest the film for its graphic images, but if you can stomach it and keep an open mind, #Raw actually uses the subject matter of cannibalism to visually express what dwells deep down in the teenage psyche and what lies within the bond of sisterhood.
The film begins with a brainy vegetarian named Justine (Garance Marillier) who is about to begin her first week at veterinary school. She's following in the proud footsteps of her parents and her sister, who has already been there a year. Unlike your run-of-the-mill prep school, these kids party harder than just beer pong and the occasional walk of shame. It's basically a free-for-all that leaves them to their own devices, which consists of wild, sweaty sex, drugs, and eyeball licking (seriously, it's in there).
Freshmen are, quite literally, hurled into this hedonistic culture, thus beginning a grueling first couple of days comprised of several humiliating hazing rituals including: crawling on all fours, being forced to dress like “sluts" and being doused with animal blood.
After about 20 minutes of watching this poor girl being subjected to deplorable behavior, our hearts are breaking. However, a familiar scene of animal blood dripping off a young teen's unsuspecting face helps to remind us that not all demure girls go down without a fight.
Trying to adhere to her strict vegetarian diet, Justine tries to assert herself when she's commanded to cross over to the dark side and sink her teeth into a tasty bit of rabbit kidney. Unless she wants to become an outcast, chomping down the little bits of bunny is a prerequisite to fitting in. What follows are signs of something new and carnal. Or, perhaps it's always been there and the taste of flesh has only summoned it.
Ducournau and her team of audio and visual artists make sure to emphasize all the physical details that bring us in closer to the transformation that lies ahead. This is especially true for the sound mixing and effects that help us to identify with the physical experience of our hero — the sound of nails scraping against skin in hopes of alleviating an incessant itch, the subtle rumblings of a stomach throughout scenes, the sound of teeth squeezing down on a piece of uncooked chicken.
All these details bring forth a truly physical response that aids us in sympathizing with Justine, which ultimately elevates her metamorphosis.
And The Gore Begins
The first signs of her new appetite are shown in the most wonderfully gruesome ways. It's easy to dismiss this as gratuitous (which some have), but if we are to empathize with the human side of her character, then we need to experience the monster within. Unless we witness the violence and bloodshed that ensues, we are not standing with Justine but merely observing from afar. Ducournau wants us right there with her, no matter how horrifying it is.
These are the kind of moments that compelled scores of people to throw their arms up in submission and depart the cinema with their hands over their mouths (or so I've heard). Even though the number of gory scenes is low, the affect it has on its audience is quite compelling. Perhaps the most compelling is the moment she gives into her desire for flesh.
Faced with the pressures of beautification and sexualization, Justine's sister, Alexia (Ella Rumpf), forces a Brazilian bikini wax on her. When the strip gets stuck, Alexia grabs some scissors and just as she's about to cut the sticky mess, Justine resists and violently kicks her back. Her eyes go wide.
Somehow Alexia's finger has been sliced off and she faints. As Justine panics, the warm light of the room hits the bloody flesh in the most inviting way and beckons her to reach down. Then, as a calmness overcomes her, she has (dare I say) a tender moment with the severed digit. Her eyes examine it from top to bottom as a droplet of blood spatters on her hand. With a tilt of curiosity, she leans in close and takes a bite.
All along, we knew this moment was coming, but Marillier's performance is so convincing that the scene still carries the right amount of shock and horror.
I've read comparisons between the gore in Raw and that of Lars Von Trier films, presumably referring to Antichrist and Nymphomaniac Vol. I & II. However, I'd have to disagree on the grounds that the violence we see in Raw is a physical consequence of a premise that heightens the film's reality, while Von Trier uses sordid and even vulgar images to shock the mind and eyes, which essentially makes what he's showing a psychological experience, rather than a physical one.
To Love Is To Consume
In Raw, once blood is spilt, the characters begin to evolve and the story transitions to the relationship between Justine and Alexia. We expect Alexia to confront Justine on her vile act of finger eating, but instead, she finds understanding in the one person who truly cares about her survival in the dog-eat-dog world. It's very clear that hidden within their cannibalistic nature lies a deep, deep love for one another, but it is something they're unable to properly process — a common consequence of our teenage years. Even though they can't come to terms on whether or not their lust for flesh is worth pursuing, the fact is that each one thinks they know what's best, as both perspectives spawn from a genuine place of love.
Marillier has been in several shorts, but this is her first feature film. For a young, up-and-coming actress such a physical role can be quite the challenge, but Marillier brought courage and sadness to a complex character that evolves at such a quick pace. For instance, there are moments when we find her on the floor, blood smeared across her jaw, and it's hard not to see her conflicted nature.
The bond between sisters here is presented in an extremely literal way. Their love for one another demands consuming the other, and when words no longer suffice, they face off in a carnivorous brawl that has the entire university (and theatre) watching with anticipation. This is a truly exhilarating scene.
The word "pathos" probably doesn't come to mind when thinking of a horror film about a cannibalistic teen, but the last scene of the film shows how this can be accomplished in the hands of a skilled filmmaker. It starts with Justine sitting across from her father at the breakfast table as he speaks about his marriage to her mother. He begins with some necessary anecdotes about their courtship, but then he starts to unbutton his shirt. Justine's eyes suddenly well with tears. Savage bite marks and years-old flesh wounds plague his chest. With a resigned voice he tells her,
“Maybe one day you'll find a solution.”
A cannibalistic premise may not seem like a novel idea these days, but the character that Ducournau and Marillier have crafted demonstrates the unconscious shift that occurs when someone is forced to face the darkest sides of their nature. While it contains a good amount of gore, Raw takes what has become a campy genre and transfigures it into a genuine work of art. As graphic as it is, I feel its artistic value carries much more weight than the argument that it is unbefitting of an audience. If you can stomach it, see it.
What did you think of Raw?