Julia Ducournau’s audacious feature length debut stuns, blending vampiric hedonism, junkie freak outs, the struggles of being a genius in a room full of slackers, and freshman year hazing into a impeccably shot parable to self-control.
Midway through the first act of Raw, Julia Ducournau’s brutal and vivid debut film, main character Justine (played with alternating steely confidence and frenzied lack of control by Garance Marillier) gets into an argument with her fellow veterinary school “rookies” about the ethics of monkey rape. Up until this point the movie had been primarily concerned with showering Jusine in a jet of harsh, collegiate reality: crazy parties, broken-into classrooms containing all manner of weird, preserved animal carcass, bog-standard “throw your mattress out of your window” freshman hazing. It’s on this conversation that Raw spins on its axis, transforming from a menacing tale of “Good Girl In the Shit” into “Wait, What are We Talking About Here” metaphor thriller.
Justine, in the most PETA way possible, walks herself into Ducournau’s narrative trap, equating the suffering of raped monkeys, which she reasons exists because of evident monkey self-awareness, to the suffering of raped human women. A fellow rookie posits that, by that logic, monkey is no different than woman. Justine, trapped but principled, replies “yeah.” It’s at this moment the viewer should, but doesn’t, realize that Justine is already lost.
The credit goes, then, to Ducournau, Marillier and Belgian cinematographer Ruben Impens for balancing audience dread at the sight of the vegetarian Justine’s slow downward spiral into a different kind of carnivorousness with a sometimes heavy-handed but well-earned metaphor about the nature of what young brains do with desire, especially refracted through the lens of an ingenue.
The audience is beaten over the head with images of Justine’s outsider status: her virginity flashing on her face as she walks in on roommate Adrien getting head in their room, her shocked sobriety when confronted with her first bikini wax, even the casual brutality of the way horses are pumped full of ketamine to be studied warrants a stunted, distant stare. Justine is a wunderkind — her entire family, including rebellious older sister Alexia (Ella Rumpf), has previously or currently attends this prestigious school — and it’s assumed through her studiousness and the repulsion of professors at her know-it-all nature that Justine will succeed, easily. Little thought is given to the personal growth of the child, and it’s on this development that Ducournau is focused.
After tasting the first meat of (presumably) her life with a sickening bit of raw rabbit offal (a proverbial white rabbit in one of the film’s many not so subtle touches), Justine begins to interact with the pangs of indulgence for the first time. She breaks out in a rash all over her body, shamefully tries to steal grey hamburger from the school cafeteria, rides the bus for hours to get truck stop Shawarma… finally, she inhales bites of raw chicken in the pre-dawn hours of the morning in, quixotically, one of the film’s most disgusting scenes.
Impens mostly keeps his saturated camera as close as possible to Justine, focusing on the purple-red rashes she scratches into her skin or the erotic pink hues of the chicken she bites into. Alternately, Ducournau pulls the camera back in scenes featuring Justine among the mass of her other “rookies,” her outsider status constantly showing through as the rest of the group take their freshman lumps in stride.
Justine’s lumps are just a bit…meatier (damn, told myself I wasn’t going to use that word). Simply put, because there just isn’t another way to put it, we are slowly walked into a terrifying, erotic, sanguine scene in the middle of the movie when a botched Brazilian by Alexia leads Justine to her first true taste of the only meat that will satisfy her — human flesh. Played out by Marillier, Rumpf and the family dog named ‘Quicky,’ it evokes the terror of measuring yourself against your peers and the pressure to match them in some of the disgusting things they do.
Meanwhile, the change in Justine from scared ingenue to bloodthirsty animal hints at itself just before Justine takes her first bite of flesh; whenever Alexia drifts away from Justine to get more wax, Quicky immediately comes up to examine Justine’s crotch, as if recognizing the animalism that is awakening inside Justine.
From there, things get complicated. Raw’s script doesn’t handle the myriad balls it puts in the air in the most graceful way — Justine and Alexia’s relationship with her parents is particularly ill-defined, especially given the ending of the movie — yet each successive plot point further illustrates how far Justine feels she has to go to be accepted, and how her hunger ultimately betrays that journey in the most public way.
The film’s treatment of Justine’s virginity, which is constantly under assault from horny rookies or belligerent “Vets” in places like color parties (girl is blue, boy is yellow… make green), comes to a head in a way many teens might find familiar: here’s the best friend, let’s get this over with. The best friend, Adrien (played with woke-bro lackadaisical poise by Rabah Naït Oufella) ends up playing a key role in the plot as Justine begins to experiment with her cannibalistic hunger upon him.
But the hunger doesn’t just appear as metaphor for sex, or even one specific aspect of adolescent growth. More than that, Justine’s “disease” is more about about the entire scope of rebellious late and post-teenagerdom: fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me so now I’m going to eat these brains. Marillier plays the desire for human flesh accurately and adroitly as a disease; the brief moments she gives into her junkie fervor for blood are the moments when she is outed most clearly to her peers, and ostracized.
In a way, then, the hunger also presents a framework for understanding young female sexuality. Justine is uniformly seen as desirable, at least in the way that all of the rookies are desirable. Yet once she begins to own her sexuality, to feed (hah) her innermost desires, she is viewed as a freak. The revelation that there is another who feels the same desire as Justine (it won’t take much to guess who), feeds into this idea — the other has become comfortable in their specific brand of feeding the beast (oh god), and thus isn’t so much viewed as a freak, just a cool weirdo. All part of the ownership of self, you see.
Raw remarks upon nature vs. nurture a bit as it leans full bore into its final act, and while I won’t spoil too much of a movie whose twists are regrettably very easy to see coming, the results of the experiment side pretty evidently with the natural declination of (wo)man toward their vices and indulgences. While Ducournau would never go so far as to say that the suppression and “defeat” of those urges is anything worth celebrating either — this is a horror movie, so you can bet that suppression doesn’t really work — the traditional narrative of French self-survival uncoils as the only possible way to deal with our problems.
Both Impens and Ducournau balance these myriad competing themes with the punk aesthetic: understanding society will do nothing to aid in personal self-discovery. In the end, Justine largely has to solve the riddle of coping with her “disease” herself, and no one else will help her. This particular brand of libertarian subsistence doesn’t excuse the behavior of the rookies, the vets, Justine, her fellow compatriot cannibal, her parents or, hell, her teachers. Just so, one of the most startling images to call out from Impens’ work is the first sequence just before the rookies are brought to their initiation party: lines of teens crawling on hand and foot mindlessly to the altar of hedonism. Each shot as Justine further indulges is furtive and sexy, Impens and Ducournau begging you to sympathize with whatever the hell Justine is becoming.
The cinematography and the understated mania in Marillier’s performance anchor the weak bits of the movie (the score most specifically, which can’t decide between John Carpenter and creepy John Denver…or French cannibal rap) to its thematic purpose, providing small parables on body consciousness, what it’s like to be the smartest kid in the room, queer dysphoria and animal abuse amidst the rest of the more thickly laid on themes of female sexuality, hazing, bullying, vegetarianism and, most generally but most strongly, what it’s like to be a woman discovering who she really is or can be. Raw is audacious and powerful, establishing Ducournau as the name to know in un-Americanized foreign directors (surpassing the now crossed-over Yorgos Lanthimos) for the coming years.