With Raw – a visceral amalgamation of erotic thrillers, black comedy, coming-of-age dramas, and unflinching cannibal horrors – French-born writer-director Julia Ducournau announces herself as one of the most fiercely original auteurs working in today’s industry.
Ducournau’s remarkable debut feature made headlines after audience members were purported to have fainted during the film’s premiere at the Toronto Film Festival in 2016. Raw is, indeed, quite hard to stomach in places, but as Ducournau argued in her defence, it is much more than just a “blood fest;” it’s an intimate exploration of sexual identity, the desire to fit in at such a crucial turning point in a young woman’s life, and, perhaps a little unsurprisingly, it has a couple of things to say about the ethics and reality of meat consumption – is there really a distinction between a chicken wing and a freshly severed finger?
We follow the naïve vegetarian teenager Justine (played by the truly phenomenal Garance Marillier) as she begins her education at a prestigious veterinary school, the same one her older sister, Alexia (Ella Rumpf), currently attends. Rudely awoken in the middle of the night by second and third year students, the first years are subjected to a brutal hazing ritual that culminates in the eating of a particularly unappetising rabbit kidney. A raw one.
Forced to participate by her older sister at the risk of being shunned by her peers, Justine begins to slowly cave in to her newly-found, long-suppressed desires as the film begins its free-fall descent through depravity and carnal lust.
It probably comes as little surprise that a film with the focus point of Raw certainly isn’t lacking in an abundance of on-screen flesh, but nothing ever feels sleazy. At no point does the audience feel second-hand embarrassment for Marillier or her co-stars, even as her appetite for flesh becomes insatiable, her desires uncontrollable, her behaviour increasingly intense. If the audience feels anything – and trust me, they do – it’s nothing short of unbridled admiration towards the brilliant Marillier.
It’s an exhilarating experience. It’s deeply shocking, forever threatening to fully evolve into a Cronenbergian nightmare. It keeps its cool (“cool”) as it rides the fine line between sleaze and grace, achieving something that is so wonderfully macabre and pulse-racingly unique.
As a horror, it doesn’t ever really terrify you, but it doesn’t need to; that’s not the point. Ducournau describes her film as a coming-of-age drama, having expressed regret that the infamous Toronto incident has led to it gaining a rather notorious reputation that, whilst it may pique interests, does the film little justice.
The film’s depictions of cannibalism primarily function on a metaphorical level, serving as manifestations of how Justine deals with the recent introductions to her life of carnal desires and the awakening of her sexuality, instead of gratuitous torture porn.
It is certainly deserving of its 18 certificate, but it’s important to not go in expecting some form of test or challenge. A certain scene involving an attempted bikini wax may well be one of the decade’s finest slices of extreme cinema, but Ducournau masterfully elevates squeamish body-horror far above the sleazy exploitation movies that have invariably bore influence.
Raw will fail to sate your appetite for an unadulterated gore fest, but that’s far from a criticism in the long run.
As a filmmaker, Ducournau knows exactly what she’s doing. It’s almost surreal to think this is her first feature as she effortlessly demonstrates her prowess with all the hallmarks of a competent and adroit film-maker. Her debut is as cine-literate as they come, invoking sequences and musical cues from Dario Argento’s Suspiria whilst paying a blood-soaked homage to Carrie’s infamous closing act, safely securing itself a place in the contemporary horror canon.
Raw towers above many of its contemporaries, refusing to hold back as it rips apart our cinematic and social expectations of the female body, leaving you with one of the most genuine and hard-earned feelings of discomfort a film could for long after the credits roll.
As far as art horror goes, I really don’t see anything topping it this year – maybe even this decade. With unwavering conviction, Ducournau has boldly left her mark on the new school of modern horror.
As we’re starting to see the genre become a successful vehicle for contemporary social and political commentary, with Jordan Peele’s Get Out rapidly gaining cult status for its fresh approach to horror tropes and social realities, Raw feels like it came out at exactly the right time.
It may prove difficult in parts to sit through, but it demands to be seen. It’s unique – a feminist tour-de-force that taps into our subconscious and gleefully subverts expectations and shatters all preconceived notions. Ducournau is one of the most important directors working today because, above all else, Raw may just be one of the finest directorial debuts ever made.
I had the immense pleasure of seeing Raw at the Gulbenkian on May 30th, and if you’re ever given the chance I strongly recommend you see it as well.
Colour me excited – and if we’re talking Ducournau, that’s definitely a shade of red.
by Sebastian Mann