The first filmmaker that comes to mind while watching Raw is Canadian legend David Cronenberg, but even Cronenberg’s first couple of features – as jarring and morbidly compelling as they were — may not have achieved quite the same complete control and confidence that French writer/director Julia Ducournau exhibits in her feature debut, an instant feminist horror classic which opened in limited release this weekend after stunning viewers last year at the Cannes and Toronto film festivals. Several people reportedly fainted during a screening at the latter gathering, and it’s not hard to imagine that happening at all: Raw is one hell of a grisly movie to withstand, but like all great or near-great horror, its plentiful blood and guts are in service of a number of higher themes.
Raw is the story of first-year university student Justine (an astounding Garance Marillier), a vegetarian like the rest of her family — including her sister and second-year student Alexia (an equally magnificent Ella Rumpf) — who is attending veterinary school. It turns out that even high-minded students who wish to save the lives of animals have their own brutal hazing rituals for freshmen, one of which involves eating a slab of raw meat, in this case a rabbit kidney. Justine, already on the shy, brainy side and not into school parties or hazing at all, is forced to down that kidney — an act that awakens in her first a terrifying allergic reaction on her skin, and then a desire for more flesh, and not necessarily that of animals.
Right from the get-go, the social commentary in Raw takes center stage, particularly when it comes to the nastier side of hazing — although at this point, after a number of movies dealing with the subject, I don’t think there is any other side (one scene has a boy and girl who seem to barely know each other, one painted yellow and one painted blue, thrown into a room together and told not to come out “until you’re green”). The pressure to go along, whether with the often sadistic and pointless hazing antics, the excessive drugs and sex at the campus parties or her own family traditions (her parents are veterinarians as well), clearly begins to eat at Justine’s nerves; it doesn’t help that she finds more comfort in the company of her gay Muslim roommate (Rabah Nait Oufella, a whole other movie walking around inside this one) than her sister, who resentfully sees Justine as their parents’ favorite.
But it’s no accident that Alexia is right in the thick of things when Justine begins to experience an entirely foreign set of sensations and desires, precipitating the launch of a whole new raft of metaphors concerning sibling rivalry and female sexuality. One of the best horror films to deal with these subjects was 2000’s Ginger Snaps, but even that terrific little movie kept some distance from the heart of the matter by making poor Ginger the victim of a werewolf bite. There is no such fantasy in Raw; despite everything that happens involving Justine, Alexia and other members of the student body — not to mention their bodies and some of their members — our heroines stay recognizably and sometimes unpleasantly human.
Ducournau’s bleak, isolated campus — as gray and forbidding as any haunted house — is perhaps the most clinical and Cronenbergian touch in this body horror exercise, making the abundant flow of deep red blood stand out that much more. The director also keeps us reminded with a few forays into the classroom that we are watching vets in training, and doesn’t shy away from the uneasy realities involved with that as well. Flesh is flesh, no matter where it’s from, and the desire for it, once awakened, is overpowering enough to snuff out all other inhibitions. How far we let those desires take us can ultimately define who we are for better or worse. That’s the final message of Raw, and as its title suggests, this unique and original horror tale drives it home unflinchingly.
Raw is out now in limited release.