While most of the republic’s cinema-goers flock to local theaters to indulge in the new incarnation of Stephen King’s It, your local RedBox is harboring a deliciously wicked and original work of cinematic viscera, Julia Ducournau’s Raw (2016). This cannibal parable created quite the stir at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival, where audience members were reported to have fainted due to the movie’s bloody moments. As with most movies of this type, the gore doesn’t do justice to the hype. The film’s power resides in what it has to say as opposed to what it wants to show. Like all good satire, it knows that showing too much ruins the effect. Like American Psycho, Raw gets under your skin by casting a mirror. Ducournau is essentially putting on display a civilization eating itself, like Goya’s painting “Saturno devorando a su hijo (Saturn Devouring His Son).” Raw is art as splatter, capturing in its own special way those moments when youth, sexual awakening and finding one’s place in the social labyrinth all crash together.
A brilliant, nuanced Garance Marillier in Raw
The film takes place at a French veterinary school which could serve as a substitute for most Western societies. Justine (Garance Marillier), a thin vegetarian, endures her first day on campus amid a storm of hazing by the senior students. Justine and her new gay roommate Adrien (Rabah Nait Oufella) are barked at by seniors in masks who raid dorm rooms, imposing a social hierarchy based on nothing more than who’s been on campus longer. During a debauched rave Justine finds her sister Alexia (Ella Rumpf), who is part of the upper, hazing order. The following day, after having blood poured on them as a group, the freshmen are then made to eat raw rabbit kidneys. When Justine refuses Alexis forces her to eat the snack. Soon strange rashes appear on Justine’s body as well as an impulse to try eating meat. She starts with raw chicken meat, and soon escalates to human flesh, while at the same time opportunities present themselves for Justine to explore her growing sexual awareness. It is when both urges collide that a Grand Guignol crescendo ensues.
The first impressive aspect of Raw is that it is a debut film. Ducournau is a mere 31 years old and here announces herself as a major talent. In this age of sensationalism, where bombastic gestures dominate everything from politics to Tweets, her approach is sly and quietly subversive. Even the film’s promotional artwork is an elegant display of making the grotesque classy- the key poster is a close up of Marillier appearing to have a slight nosebleed, with no indication that blood will be served in searing shots of cannibalism.
Both the film’s artwork and approach is apt for the age: Is this not the era of stylish conformity? Brands and looks define us socially more than ever before, even politics has become theater cloaked in slogans and consumerism. If the 2016 election proved anything, it is that the last eight years masked an illusion of handsome progress while beneath there always lurked violent moods and terrible impulses.
The world of Raw takes place in what superficially appears to be the respectable world of academia. In one scene a snotty professor warns Justine he could care less about her prestigious record as a student, gleefully pointing out that she’s made one mistake in her exam. Students sit in dim lecture halls as the perfect picture frame of the educated, but left alone they become hazing animals, engaging in Bacchanals of youthful exploration and cruel debasement. In one scene Justine wanders into a room where freshman are smeared with paint and forced to have sex or make out to mix the colors together. When a fellow initiate tries to force Justine into making out she bites into his lip, taking a piece. The scene is brilliant in how it poses the question of how we should perceive her in the moment. By now we know she is having cannibalistic urges, but the guy quite clearly deserved the bite.
Justine is a “freak,” or character outside of the social bubble, trying to maneuver in a world that is mean and mad. She begins the film as a vegetarian with a quiet composure and crippling shyness. She doesn’t make an effort to look “hot” or sexually appealing in the popular sense. But soon the social bubble pulls her in and she starts experimenting with makeup, fetching clothing and dancing in front of the mirror to hip hop music that chants, “blow job queen/give him what he needs/citric acid pheromones/tick tick tick metronomes.” In the scene she is getting ready to seduce a boy she likes. Yet the campus itself is more primal than academic, and it would make sense that attraction here is more vivid, even visceral, than in a campus where dead animal carcasses are not the norm, and where you don’t discuss life with your friend while digging into a dog’s intestines. The campus of Raw is an amalgam of animal biology with the base impulses of humans crammed into a space.
Raw could have easily resembled something in the Eli Roth mold: Relentless grotesquerie and mind-numbing violence to get the point across. But Ducournau decides to instead create a realistic world with doses of horror, yet never showing more than she should. Like recent films such as It Follows and The Witch, this is a movie where its effect comes from having an authentic setting suddenly rattled by extraordinary images. The cinematography is by Ruben Impens, who turns the vet campus almost into a dystopian territory with cold greys which can transition into hot reds or dark blues. Impens has also shot for the futuristic anthology series “Black Mirror,” and as with that series, there is a cold elegance here in the way dreariness is then colored with splashes of viscera. Turn on the television or log onto the news on any given day and the aesthetic is correct, for we live in a world working in jaded modernism with sudden flashes of blood.
Ducournau particularly proves to be skilled in crafting scenes that begin like domestic, even darkly comic moments, but then slowly build into stunning climaxes. Consider one scene where Alexia decides to give Justine a “Brazilian wax job.” The scene begins funny enough, with Justine enduring the pain of the procedure. But a tussle over scissors ends with a gloriously surreal finger-eating moment, and of course it would take a French auteur to close the scene not with gore, but with a tear flowing out of a realizing, terrified face. A lovemaking scene also ends with a horrifying wake up the morning after, and while Ducournau shows us an eaten corpse, she never goes overboard, because what gets under the viewers’ skin are the implications of the moment, not the geeky peek at guts and bone. Sex can be two individuals consuming each other, and Raw takes the idea to its ultimate level.
Cannibalism in this film is a stand in for the violence of hormones and the sheer nightmare of growing up. Like the underrated Antonia Bird film Ravenous, where Civil War soldiers also bask in the taste of human flesh, here this particular appetite casts a mirror on our primitive selves. It is a practice as old as Euripides and The Bacchae. If Justine is dealing with a changing body which decides to do things she can’t quite comprehend yet, then in a sense we are all cannibals. And as our obsession with defining body types and arguing over fat-shaming (amongst other social practices) continues, it is fair to say we are in a sense all afraid of our physical selves and how easily our bodies can rebel against us.
Raw has been championed by some critics as a feminist parable. Indeed it is the rare film that dares to explore the experience of feminine growth through the use of an ultimate taboo. But it isn’t so much shocking as original and engaging. In a dry season of commercial factory product, a film like Raw is a refreshing reminder that new directors are not afraid to give us civilization at its roots, with a sly wink and grin. For the faint of heart it might be too much, but then again human nature can always be a bit too much.
Alci Rengifo is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. He frequently contributes to the Los Angeles Review of Books and the East LA monthly Brooklyn & Boyle.