The fall festivals have a way of dictating a film’s reputation. If you go by hype alone, Raw is the shock-and-awe cannibal movie that caused audiences at Cannes and Toronto to either faint or flock to the exits during its goriest moments. But French filmmaker Julia Ducournau’s debut feature is far from a grisly, one-note flick (sorry, gorehounds). Instead, it’s a nimbly crafted bit of subversive horror, one that’s certainly worth the art-house pilgrimage.
Brilliant but shy teenager Justine (Garance Marillier) is the daughter of veterinarians and vegetarians. She’s followed in her folks’ footsteps by refusing to eat meat and enrolling in a prestigious veterinary college, just like her older sister Alexia (Ella Rumpf). Justine is dropped off at school and immediately endures a Hell Week like no other -- a highly organized series of hazing initiations devised by the upperclassmen. Alexia gives her little sis no special treatment, bullying the demure Justine into partying hard and performing bizarre rituals. At least she finds friendship with her roommate, a gay man named Adrien (Rabah Nait Oufella).
One of those hazing rituals requires Justine to eat a raw rabbit kidney -- an offense to her diet and morality, but an obligation if she wants to fit in amongst these future physicians. Her body revolts against the meat, and she develops peeling, itchy rashes and disorienting fevers. The symptoms eventually calm down, but her biology has been unmistakably changed: She now craves the taste of animal meat, and soon finds herself stealing from the cafeteria and indulging in uncooked portions. But her hunger for flesh is never satisfied, creeping slowly towards the human variety. Her liberation continues in the form of drinking and promiscuity, pushing the boundaries of her friendship with Adrien and revealing hidden layers to her sibling rivalry with Alexia as her cannibalistic tendencies reach critical mass.
Beneath its dermis-gnashing veneer, Raw is a fierce coming-of-age tale focusing on youthful female indulgence, and it’s stripped of any potentially stifling sense of the male gaze. Justine’s sexual and dietary deflowering introduce her to the previously unknown excesses of adulthood, and fulfilling her lascivious desires becomes just as pressing to her as the hazing-week rituals and her mounting coursework.
Justine and Alexia’s relationship -- which vacillates between nurturing, jealously, and outright competition -- provides the narrative with an exploration of their individual female identities. The push-and-pull of the sisters, and their understanding of one another, give Raw the storytelling heft that transcends its B-movie sensibilities. The dramatic turning point of their siblinghood comes in a darkly funny and jarringly gruesome scene in which Alexia volunteers to give Justine a Brazilian bikini wax. This review won’t spoil that scene, but it’ll stick with you for a while.
Raw is steeped in an ever-present ambiance of foreboding, thanks in part to the gorgeous camerawork from cinematographer Ruben Impens and an eclectic score from composer Jim Williams. Yet the movie’s real horror comes from its mood of irrepressible primal instinct. Justine’s indulgence in the carnal and carnivorous wants of the flesh feels identifiably human -- which might be the most disquieting effect of the film. The doe-eyed Marillier is fantastic as her character transforms from bookish to bewitching, and the young actress aces the physical demands of the role with a veteran’s assurance.
Ducournau’s debut is an impressive blend of excess and restraint -- the gory visuals will certainly make some squirm, but they never undermine the larger story being told. Her successful melding of style and substance, in which neither one is sacrificed by the other, makes Raw the film that Nicolas Winding Refn probably wishes The Neon Demon was. With tinges of Cronenberg’s body horror and the eroticism of Japanese pink movies, Raw is a deliciously vicious piece of genre filmmaking.
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- Released: 2017
- Rating: R
- Review: The fall festivals have a way of dictating a film’s reputation. If you go by hype alone, Raw is the shock-and-awe cannibal movie that caused audiences at Cannes and Toronto to either faint or flock to the exits during its goriest moments. But French filmma… (more)