Raw (Grave, 2016)

Young Justine (Garance Marillier) is embarking on a great life experience. Daughter of veterinarian parents (Laurent Lucas and Joana Preiss), she’s off to vet school herself after finishing high school, joining her older sister Alexia (Ella Rumpf), who now counts as one of the school’s battle-hardened seniors. Although a dazzling intellect, Justine seems a meek and mousy young goody-two-shoes, coming as she does from a family whose vegetarian rules are so strict that mother chucks a fit at the staff of a diner for accidentally including a meatball in with her daughter’s mashed potato. The frenetic student life thrust upon young students by hazing seniors and fellows eager to embark upon adult shenanigans hits her like a tsunami, and she’s installed in a dorm room with a gay student, Adrien (Rabah Nait Oufella). One ritual of induction/humiliation is to eat a chunk of pickled rabbit liver, a test Justine passes barely after Alexia crams it into her mouth. Soon, she breaks out in a terrible rash, the result of food poisoning, and also begins to acquire a compulsive love for meat, driving her to steal a hamburger patty from the cafeteria, and then to start wolfing down chunks of raw meat from the fridge. Finally an accident with scissors that severs one of Alexia’s fingers when she’s trying to give her sister a Brazilian wax sees Justine tempted past all restraint, and she consumes the severed digit like a succulent morsel. Alexia however proves scarcely shocked by her little sister’s new habit, and quickly introduces her to her own manner of dealing with the same hunger, causing cars to crash off the road and gnawing on the mangled drivers.

An attention-getting feature debut for Julie Ducournau, Raw comes on with bloody gusto and an authoritative visual style that sets out to extract maximum discomfort from the audience, whilst also wringing coal-black humour out of extremely unlikely things. Early scenes noting the vet school’s introduction of its students to the visceral world of their chosen trade, like the sedation and suspension of a horse and the dissection of dead dogs, echo the medical test scenes in The Exorcist (1973) in locating the weirdness inherent in ordered modern scientific practice, thrown into high contrast with the atavistic urges soon visited upon our heroines, who have to work through violently irrational urges without benefit of textbooks or mechanisms. Raw exacerbates the situation by neglecting forces of external authority: the world of the young seems cut off from almost any other form of reference, turning the student body into a free-floating Darwinian bubble. The temptations of the flesh rhyme unsubtly but effectively with Justine’s rapidly burgeoning sexuality. The hatching of an erotic creature in Justine is depicted in two superbly staged party sequences: the first, early in the film, sees Justine wander bewilderedly through a labyrinth of fellow students getting drunk and making out in a haze of coloured lights, sweat turned to steam, and eardrum-liquefying dance music. Much later, Justine stalks the same scene with rapacious, alcohol-fuelled intent to consume and torment. The regime imposed by the student body elders (or “great ones” as they also insist on being called) manifests spectacles of bizarre humiliation, like a drenching in ox blood that recalls Carrie (1976), and columns of students forced to move on hands and knees like they’re rehearsing to be extras in the next Human Centipede movie.

The matter at the heart of Raw is a classic one in horror cinema – the animal remnant in humanity that manifests in drives that burn through the veneer of our civilities and our consciences. Here it’s couched in the self-evident correlation of sexual and physical hunger, but also offered in terms of the end of childhood and the switchback-inducing passage into proper adulthood many experience today for the first time properly only once entering halls of academe. Justine’s shock at almost consuming meat in the opening scene seems deliberately patterned after how a horror film in a different age might have filmed a young Christian being shocked by some manifestation of modern filth. Although officially a gory tale about cannibal urges, Ducournau’s eye is perhaps at its best when depicting the tyrannous regime thrust upon the younger students by the old, who round them up at night, force them into degrading positions, and throw their mattresses out windows, a kristallnacht for bovine neophytes. The interesting aspect of this lies in how Ducournau elucidates the self-imposed, ritual nature of such trials, as a method chosen by the students themselves to throw off inhibitions and usher themselves into adult behaviour, compelled to indulge gruesome challenges and remake themselves as sexual beings. Young Justine, whose name carries telling Sadean connotations, is introduced to us as desperately in need of a little perverting, and her tale invokes the way, in spite of our official status today as post sexual liberation, terror over engagement with our carnal selves is still readily apparent. There’s also, of course, an eye here for the unpleasant attitudes of power and dehumanisation inherent in the student pecking order, the relish of subjecting others to whims, and indeed the relish of subjugation in turn.

Ducournau rhetorically introduces some touches that elucidate the way tall poppies are cut down, particularly if they’re girls. One of Justine’s teachers (Jean-Louis Sbille) expresses a preference to see a clever clogs like her fail if it would mean less anxiety for the rest of her class, whilst a nurse (Marion Vernoux) narrates to her a tale of a rotund young girl who couldn’t get a condition treated because everyone kept pretending she was too fat to tap a vein. Raw is also a tale dissecting relations between women that’s not really such a great distance from something like Athina Rachel Tsangari’s Attenberg (2010), as Justine and Alexia relate and fail to relate in their new status as adults. Sometimes bickering in irritation, as when Alexia tosses Justine out of her room after she fails to show proper appreciation for being allowed to wear one of her enticing dresses, the sisters also bond in displays of raucous release, as when they get drunk and compete at trying to piss whilst standing up. Justine’s eye is soon welded to Julien’s admirable abs when he’s playing soccer with other students, and in a moment of lawless passion she gets herself deflowered by him. But Julien irritably rejects her as his sexual identity reasserts itself and she unleashes overheated jealousy over Julien’s apparent friendship with Alexia, even though the two profess to dislike each-other. Julien’s queer status aids mere spice to Justine’s attraction to him – or at least is supposed to, as there’s no chemistry between the performers – as Justine’s desire to lay claim to his body is constantly thwarted by its theoretical inaccessibility.

David Cronenberg is an inevitable point of reference for Ducournau’s delve into body politics, but it also carries a distinctive strain of influence from closer to home (as a French-Belgian coproduction). The storyline’s overt connection of nascent sexual frenzy with cannibalism resituates Claire Denis’ Trouble Every Day (2001), whilst the way Ducournau contrasts blank institutional outposts with blood-soaked shenanigans and emphasises gruelling corporeal catharsis clearly has Jean Rollin in mind, particularly Fascination (1979) and La Nuit des Traquees (1980). The sequences depicting Alexia’s method for bringing down road traffic for prey, including the initially bewildering opening sequence, bear an interesting resemblance to Jose Larraz’s Vampyres (1974), another film that pivoted on depictions of feminine lustiness as a literal desire to consume to love object, in which the vampiric denizens similarly concealed their business of feeding conveniently with mangled car wrecks on musty, misty country lanes. John Fawcett’s Ginger Snaps (2000) tackled the same basic idea as this, if with the more traditionalist bracket of werewolves. But Ducournau’s approach keeps one foot planted squarely in the art house, in the spacy sensitisation to environment as a frame for behaviour akin to an art gallery filled with Justine and Alexia’s atrocities, arrayed like an exhibition of Francis Bacon pieces, and the subtraction of generic narrative brackets, immersing us instead in a stylised world given over to its own rules.

Justine’s episodes of extremely bizarre behaviour, which include eating a dog she’s just dissected and mauling her own sister in a fight shot by other students with bemused fascination on their smartphones, flit by but rarely seem to occur with amidst any form of consequence. When Alexia tries to introduce her little sister to the delights of munching on road kill, Justine does freak out and retreat, but otherwise she takes her predicament with surprising casualness, until she’s fully evolved into a lupine-eyed creature slinking through parties looking for little pigs to eat. Perhaps that slightly sarcastic, fragmenting approach here explains at least partly why, in spite of its many startling and compulsive aspects, Raw still finished up as a tantalising, near-indefinable but definite let-down for me. Like many recent horror films, Raw wears its enthusiasm to be read as metaphor just a little too nakedly for my liking. Ducournau provokes constantly but also defuses the impact of her provocations by retreating from taking them seriously on an essential level: how would it feel if you, with all your pretences to humanity, found tomorrow your greatest pleasure is consuming your fellow humans? Ducournau plays the mutual discovery of a shared, extreme proclivity in the sisters as if something less instantly galvanising was in play, for instance, a drug habit, an agitation-provoking but not quite urgent matter. For one thing, it saps whatever narrative tension might have resulted by neglecting to give the events a less rarefied approach. The gross-out set-pieces come and go, pushing buttons but failing to work up any real sense of lunatic bravura except in isolated flashes, as when Justine bites into her own arm to suppress her cannibal urge whilst screwing Julien. 

Another forebear worth noting in this regard was another fusion of horror and art house sensibilities, Abel Ferrara’s The Addiction (1996), which, whilst perhaps verbose at the opposite extreme, took the horror and intellectual curiosity of its philosophical and conscientious heroine in her new status as a blood-drinking monster entirely seriously. Ferrara’s evocation of existential crisis was sweat-inducing, whilst Raw plays clinical, so that when it comes, the gruesome, hopefully tragic climax carries no real emotional impact. Too much of Raw hovers in a place between the literal and the conceptual, the coolly graven and the authentically mad. Marillier is certainly the perfect conduit for Ducournau’s labours however, as she enacts Justine’s transformation on the most supple of physical and demonstrative levels, at first a frumpy, loping nerd girl, then slyly gaining not just sensuality evinced as she starts to gyrate her hips before the mirror, but also traits of glowering, obsessive anger and jealous sarcasm, before fully devolving into that girl every other girl tries to keep their boyfriend away from at the party. Lucas’s performance as the girls’ father is also a droll coup, particularly in the very last scene that does at the very least finally pay off Raw’s arch metaphors with a single, brilliant, hideous image. The paterfamilias reveals that not only is he well familiar with the strange tastes of the females in the family, but also suggests, with sick wit, that to be a loving member of any family essentially means letting them consume you slowly, and that to survive as an adult means learning how to curb one’s essential nature and impulses in a way that feels ultimately just as disfiguring. There’s genius at play in this moment and in others scattered throughout Raw, a quality that would be less frustrating if it was sustained.

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