Raw opens with a static camera, immediately finding a shot we all know. It’s an open road, an empty one. It’s edges are lined with trees, fields either side. Rather than place her camera in the middle and locate symmetry like many would, director Julia Ducournau opts to frame this familiar image from slightly left of centre. It doesn’t make for an unpleasant frame, but it feels uncomfortable. This is something we all know but not how we normally see it.
Immediately, Raw‘s tone is set. It’s something familiar, a coming of age story set when a girl heads off to college, but not told in the way we expect. Justine (Garance Marillier), a lifelong vegetarian like all of her family, arrives at Veterinary college for her first year. Her sister Alexia (Ella Rumpf) already studies there, it’s a kind of family tradition. During a hazing ritual, Justine is forced to consume a raw rabbit kidney to prove her commitment to the course. She does so, but soon begins to notice strange side effects like unbearable rushes, behavioural uneasiness, and a sudden desire for human flesh.
Like I said, familiar but different. Raw wears its influences on its sleeve – an early moment of Justine’s class getting drenched from above in blood as part of the ritual feels like Carrie on overdrive, and the film’s incessant body horror is straight up Cronenberg – but forms its own identity from the offset. It seems to be set in a world that isn’t our own; while there’s nothing necessarily in the frame to suggest this, Raw‘s atmosphere is unique. The blaring organ music that accompanies the end credits suggest a reliance on convention, yet the film’s ever shifting tone seem to want to push conventionality far away.
Ducournau’s tonal shifts are part of what makes Raw so exhilarating. One moment we’re being subjected to horrendous body horror (more on that later). A few seconds later there are cracking one liners and brilliant pieces of visual comedy. Despite Raw‘s grim and bloody appeal, empathy is a vital emotion to the film. It needs us to like and emphasise with Justine or else her cannibalistic descent will turn us away from her. Humour is an effective way to someone’s heart, and Raw earns our empathy for Justine.
On the other end of the spectrum, we have the film’s darker side. The film’s depiction of body horror comes in a number of forms: there’s a gut churning moment displaying the sickening aftermath of Justine’s habit of chewing her own hair; Justine’s first cannibalistic indulgence is all kinds of bizarre but framed so tightly that it lands firmly in the grotesque; a game changing twist in the film’s final act is stomach churning just as much for what it represents as for how it looks.
This is a tough film to watch at times, and certainly not for the faint of heart. But it layers this unrelenting grimness with powerful symbolism. An early sequence of a horse being put under anaesthetic is unnerving in how mechanical Ducournau frames it. In fact, animal bodies repeatedly crop up across the film. They’re never treated as more than bodies though, mere lumps of flesh and little more. Cross reference that with the film’s handling of Justine’s body and you form an interesting take on physicality and the way society treats the female body. Her physical appearance is brought up on a multitude of occasions, and it’s no coincidence that she’s female.
In the middle of it all is Marillier, who plays Justine in endlessly fascinating ways. Not only is her emotional growth across the film remarkable, but Marillier also toys with Justine’s body language. The shy girl pushing through the crowds at her first wild party is very different to the woman dancing provocatively to her bedroom mirror just days later. The film’s final act asks even more of Marillier, but she’s up for the challenge; Justine’s near feral state in Raw‘s finale is a visual spectacle in its own right, but Marillier succeeds in grounding even this. At its most hectic and rabid moments, Raw maintains focus and control.
It’s a stunning debut feature for Ducournau. Nothing marks a big talent like a director who takes something old and twists it into something new. That’s exactly what Ducournau has achieved with Raw. This intoxicating story of a girl flung into adulthood via a journey through body horror could feel counter productive. It doesn’t. Instead, it brings every element together to form something entirely unique- cinema has never seen anything like this.
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