As I walked out of the theater after seeing Julia Ducournau’s Raw, a man walking in front of me turned around and said that he’d like to warn the people waiting outside the theater for the next showing. Indeed, I understood this sentiment, and perhaps there should be a warning label on the posters for Raw. One theater in LA reportedly began handing out vomit bags at showings and when the film first premiered at festivals, viewers actually fainted during screenings. Raw is an exercise in the grotesque. It is truly unforgiving and perpetually surprising. One has to wonder how an inexperienced director persuaded anyone to fund the making of this movie.
And yet, within the boundaries of its gory and at times sickening scenes, Raw is disturbingly enchanting. It is shot with surprising restraint. Having heard all of the stories about the film’s appalling nature, I am shocked that I cannot justify describing it as gratuitous. Certainly it is bloody and violent and often disgusting, but every moment is entirely earned. It doesn’t strike me as a film that was created for the express purpose of being sickening, but instead as one that is sickening in the nature of its message.
Raw could be described as a coming-of-age tale, and a peculiar one at that. It centers around Justine (Garance Marillier) who comes from a family of vegetarian veterinarians. She is heading to veterinary school to join her older sister Alexia (Ella Rumpf) who is already a student there. Presumably, Justine is a brilliant student with a lofty reputation. However, after a hazing ritual gives Justine a taste for meat, she begins to slowly devolve into cannibalism. Quickly, she learns that this interest is shared by her older sister, and the two begin to form an unusual bond over it.
One strange quality of the film is its overtly sexual nature. It almost seems as if Ducournau set out to tell a tale of a young girl’s sexual awakening, but substituted cannibalism as a metaphor. These two ideas are, at the very least, explicitly tied together in Justine’s characterization. Her growing interest in her male classmates is, throughout the film, inseparable from her steadily increasing bloodlust. She shows particular interest in her gay male roommate, and the complicated dynamic between the two fosters her unusual development.
The cinematography of Ruben Impens is stunning. He and Ducournau clearly have an instinct for when to allow the camera to actively engage the characters and when to observe from afar. In the more fast paced scenes such as those that take place at college parties or a tense scene where Justine and Alexia are fighting, the camera comes in tight and moves rapidly giving a sense of the hectic nature of the moment. It draws the viewer directly into the characters’ perspectives. At other times, Impens shows his instinct for framing, taking wide shots and allowing the characters to slowly act upon the scenery. These scenes create a sense of tension that lasts throughout Raw. The use of color and lighting is noticeable as well. In one memorable scene as Justine is in the midst of her awakening, she walks into the hallway of her dorm and is flooded with red light. It is a brilliant and tantalizing use of visual symbolism.
It is incredible, given the near flawless execution in this film, that Julia Ducournau is essentially an entirely inexperienced director. She will be a figure that I’ll be closely watching in the coming years. In a cinematic world that is finally opening its arms to female directors, it is a delight to see one come out of the gates with such potential and promise. Her first short film, Junior, was recognized at Cannes in 2011 and in returning to the festival in 2016, Raw was honored by FIPRESCI (The International Federation of Film Critics).
Needless to say, Raw is not for the faint of heart. It is difficult to watch, sometimes to the point of physical disturbance for the viewer. Don’t be fooled though. It does not set out to be merely unsettling. It is a work of art with a profound message. It is a masterpiece in the revolting and the abnormal. And without a doubt, you will never see anything like it.