In Justine’s family everyone is a vet and a vegetarian. At 16, she’s a gifted teen ready to take on her first year in vet school, where her older sister also studies. There, she gets no time to settle: hazing starts right away. Justine is forced to eat raw meat for the first time in her life. Unexpected consequences emerge as her true self begins to form.
Paramedics were apparently required to treat people who’d passed out in a midnight screening of this arthouse cannibal film at the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival. Which makes you wonder what those people thought they were going to see when they chose this R-rated treat, because although there are brilliant squirm-inducing scenes and a fair bit of blood in Julia Ducournau’s debut feature, there’s nothing so gory or repugnant that it would traumatise your average softcore horror fan. Instead, like the best body-horror cinema, this sophisticated and sensitive Franco-Belgian film is less interested in shock for shock’s sake, and more concerned with its characters and their struggles to accommodate carnal nature.
Quiet and studious, Justine (Garance Marillier) is the virginal daughter of two strict vegetarian vets (Laurent Lucas and Joana Preiss). She plans to follow in their footsteps along with her older sister, but when she’s dropped off at vet college – a brutalist edifice of rundown grey brick – Justine encounters a bizarre world of hazing rituals, where newbies are drenched in blood, routinely humiliated and forced to eat rabbit kidneys washed down with vodka shots.
The first taste of animal flesh seems to unleash something dangerous inside Justine. Her skin begins to itch and peel and she hungers for meat, both cooked and raw, animal and, eventually, human. Mixed up in these longings is a crush on her handsome gay roommate (Rabah Nait Oufella) and her growing closeness to her confident and brazen older sister, Alexia (Ella Rumpf), who has long ago abandoned her vegetarian upbringing. When an excruciating Brazilian waxing attempt goes wrong (truly, it’s the most horrifying scene in the film), the sisters realise they have more in common than they’d thought.
Although it contains a steadily escalating horror plot, like more gentle coming-of-age tales, Raw allows moments of quiet observation and poetic fancy. A romantic, stripped down guitar score by Jim William) introduces the bare-faced, slightly pimply girl sitting in the back seat of her parents’ car, watching the world go by in dappled sunshine. Later, this score builds to pounding gothic intensity (with lots of pipe organ) when human blood has been tasted, as if she’s been electrified by the substance. There’s a dreamlike sequence with a horse blinkered and tied up, galloping on a treadmill to nowhere – just one of many scenes incorporating the troubling treatment of animals by humans. Director of Photography Ruben Impens (The Broken Circle Breakdown) uses high-contrast lighting and a palette of blackish reds and hospital greens that’s realistic but still expressive, with much of the cannibalism suggested, or obliquely rather than explicitly shown.
"The metamorphosis of Justine is depicted with clear-eyed compassion and moments of lyrical beauty, as well as a sly eye for the everyday horrors of becoming a fully sexual adult woman."
Ducournau cites David Cronenberg as a key influence, and sees him as “the director who has best filmed the psychoanalytic aspect of metamorphosis.” Here, the metamorphosis of Justine (named after de Sade’s besieged and tortured heroine) is depicted with clear-eyed compassion and moments of lyrical beauty, as well as a sly eye for the everyday horrors of becoming a fully sexual adult woman. Raw works wonderfully as a story of sisters, too – their casual cruelty to each other along with their bodily comfort and lack of shame. In one scene, we see Alexia teaching her younger sister how to pee while standing up, before they fall over in a wet, laughing mess.
Raw debuted in the Directors’ Fortnight at Cannes in 2016, where it won the international film critics’ FIPRESCI Prize. The film’s ultimate gift is its witty take on a problem most humans suffer in one form or another: how to live with monstrous hungers? This is intelligent, metaphorically rich horror that will have you pondering (and perhaps considering vegetarianism) long after you’ve left the cinema.
Raw is out in cinemas now.
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