Warning: this film is not for the faint of heart. Raw has garnered attention from rumors of audience members fainting and puking during screenings, and while I found myself gagging during some of the most graphic scenes, Raw is much more than blood and gore. It doesn’t rely on carnage for shock value, but instead tells an important story in the process. The 33-year-old French native, Julia Ducournau, steps into the feature film world with this sensational horror film that disturbingly represents a girl’s transition into adulthood.
Justine, a shy and naïve girl played by Garance Marillier, arrives at veterinary school plagued with self-doubt and anxieties. She falsely assumes that her older sister Alexia, played by Ella Rumpf, will help her stay off the upperclassmen’s radar and avoid humiliation, but that hope is quickly destroyed when Alexia forces her to eat a rabbit’s kidney as part of a hazing ritual. While her body first rejects it by breaking out in hives, a need for meat possesses her. Little by little her cravings for animal meat turn into cravings for human flesh, and few things stop her from going into a full feeding frenzy.
There are clear parallels between Justine’s emerging cannibalism and her sexual exploration. At the start of the film Justine is a virgin who is overwhelmed by the debauchery of her first college party, and by the end of the film she scans the party perched up on a countertop, legs spread in search of her next prey. The veterinary students pack into these parties in a way that resembles a slaughterhouse, which is how Justine views them. Her sexual desire, her need for human flesh, and alcohol intertwine for some disastrous consequences.
Her sexual awakening and her evolution from vegetarianism to cannibalism come with a rise in self-confidence and self-awareness without regard for social norms or consequences. The first half of the movie she comes off shy, soft spoken, and doing everything possible to avoid humiliation with little success. At one point she is forced to wear an adult diaper over her jeans for looking at an upperclassman. Later she becomes aware that other people find her attractive and the power she can harness from that. She even seduces herself by dancing in front of a mirror while getting ready for a party. However, she is never truly free from the judgment of other people and the fear of humiliation she carries with her is only ever gone when she is entranced by human flesh. Once she’s done feeding, Justine typically feels guilty mainly because she worries what others would think, but that remorse is never enough to make her stop.
Ducournau and cinematographer Ruben Impens shoot this in a way that allows viewers to sympathize with Justine. She may be doing things that most people would find vile and immoral, but we see her fear, her anxiety, her evolution, and her growth. However, viewers are never truly at ease watching “Raw.” The score sends unnerving chills up and down your spine if the scenes drenched in blood and guts weren’t enough to make you want to hurl. There seems to always be a low hum of buzzing or alarms to make the hairs on your arms stand up.
Raw portrays womanhood in a gruesome way, much like Nicolas Winding Refn’s Neon Demon, but with a much stronger focus and effect. Refn’s film feels pretty superficial in comparison, relying heavily on visuals to mask the many plot holes and unnecessary length. In contrast, everything in Ducournau’s film feels purposeful from the more artistic, dreamlike sequences to the balance between wide shots and close ups. Raw is not an easy watch, but the well-balanced, well-paced horror film leaves you satisfied.