The most oft repeated line on Raw since it made the festival rounds last year was that it’s so disgusting some audience members suffered physical illnesses. At Cannes, the paramedics were called more than once. TIFF reported passed-out viewers, too. Whenever blogs start churning up the so-sick-they-fainted stories from festivals (this happens more often than you might think), it’s always worth wondering if the film is as gross and difficult as they say, or if a queasy old critic had a bad lunch and puked it up during their 7th movie of the day.
Now that the film is here, that question doesn’t matter. Raw is a cannibal film. If you’re reading this, you probably already knew it, and if you didn’t, you do now. Casual movie-goers are highly unlikely to seek out a foreign-language film about a pair of cannibal sisters without doing so intentionally. “I accidentally watched a cannibal movie” is a sentiment rarely passing the lips of cinephiles. There’s just too much info readily available to mistake a cannibal picture for anything other than a cannibal picture. You already know if this is the kind of movie you might want to watch.
So. While the nausea inducing grossness of Raw was the most important marketing detail of the past year, that detail has served its purpose, and we can move on to the most important detail of the film.
And it is this: Raw is excellent.
Raw is the debut feature from 33-year old Julia Ducournau. And what a debut it is. Ducournau walks a fine line in an ambitious mash-up of poetic teenage drama and psychosexual cannibal horror, and she does it with the assuredness of an experienced and talented filmmaker. Raw is confident and exciting in execution, beautiful and disturbing in its imagery, and familiar and challenging in its content.
Besides a few rather obvious details, Raw is a classic coming-of-age story. The film follows a young, brilliant girl named Justine as she sets off to her first year at veterinarian school. Her parents both attended this school, and her sister Alex is currently enrolled. But Justine is special; great things are expected of her by her peers, educators, and family.
Justine and her entire family are strict vegetarians (her mother berates a buffet worker when Justine gets a meatball mixed in her potatoes), but her commitment to vegetarian life is put to the test during freshman hazing rituals, which require all rookies to eat raw animal parts. Justine, at the urging of her sister, eventually eats a rabbit kidney to avoid starting school as an outsider. She has a violent allergic reaction, and the rest, they as they say, is history.
The raw rabbit kidney awakens in Justine of a passion she never knew existed. She begins to lose interest in studies and pursues her sexual and erotic urges via a desire for raw meat. Our fleshly desires have long been tied to the sexual appetites of youth, and Durcournau pushes the metaphorical into the literal. But what starts with a kebab soon is a raw chicken breast, and then becomes an unstoppable urge for human flesh.
Justine’ self-discovery feels familiar in many ways. She’s a teenage woman who is finding real sexual pleasure for the first time, and she is pursuing that pleasure despite the social consequences of her actions. Versions of this is a coming-of-age narrative can be found throughout fiction, from Jane Austen to Buffy The Vampire Slayer. But this story has also been, historically, a dangerous one. Take the actualization of sexual desires in young women add to that pursuit the extreme nature of Justine’s urges and you get to one of the inspirations for Raw: the Marquis De Sade’s Justine, or The Misfortunes of Virtue. It’s no accident, that name.
de Sade’s 18th century novel tells the story of an untamable pleasure seeking teenager on trial for her criminally aberrant behavior. de Sade’s gothic eroticism is a satire of the most wretched sort, and ends in the only way that de Sade seemed capable of imagining: with Justine’s execution.
With Raw, Ducournau seems intent on reclaiming Justine from the clutches of de Sade–and history’s–damnation, and providing her the space to find pleasure not for the gratification of others but for herself only. As Justine and Alex’s story unfolds, the internal logic of what happens makes less and less sense (sibling rivalry has never been more dangerous). But Ducournau seems disinterested logical conclusions. Only Justine’s orientation in her new life matters, a commitment as admirable from the director as it is maddening for the audience.
Ducournau’s commitments are overt in many ways. Raw is drenched in sexuality and eroticism. Cinematographer Ruben Impens makes mesmerizing photography, using bright and lush colors to counter the deep blood red that underlies the film. It’s a beauty that plays against purpose at times, as we are eventually pushed back into the trenches of visual suffering. Garance Marillier, in her first major role, plays Justine’s transformation from a doe-eyed virgin to a stalking predator with such riotous conviction that I could not help but smile at the gleeful awfulness on camera.
Because much of Raw is awful, even if it is also undoubtedly beautiful.
But Ducournoau is working in subtle ways, too, and with humor. The first scene of particularly disturbing imagery comes unexpectedly, after a sharp turn from a scene of Justine discussing her recent decline in work with a professor. Marketing the film as one featuring graphic scenes of cannibalism works as valuable distraction for Ducournau, and she takes advantage of it several times. We are waiting for something we know is coming–cannibalism!–but Ducournau throws in routine teenage matters that, despite being ubiquitous in life, are rare on camera.
Then, just to remind us what she’s up to in, Ducournau cuts to Alex, shoulder deep up a cow’s ass. The comedy imbued in the horror of Raw brings feelings of Cronenberg at his most gleefully gross. But the feminine nature of Raw adds something vital to the body horror on screen that too few films have tapped.
Art like Raw doesn’t want to make it easy on you, and the experience isn’t for everyone. But Ducournau’s debut is a contribution it’s corner of cinema, and a statement of arrival for a new, talented artist. Like Croneberg, Ducournau’s finds obvious pleasure in playing in the muck; even better, and also like Cronenberg, she’s finding beautiful and horrible things there.