Stringent vegetarian Justine (Garance Marillier) encounters a decadent, merciless and dangerously seductive world during her first week at veterinary school. Desperate to fit in, she strays from her principles and eats raw meat for the first time. The young woman soon experiences terrible and unexpected consequences as her true self begins to emerge.
March 17, 2017
Garance Marillier, Ella Rumpf, and Rabah Nait Oufella
Raw, the debut feature film from French writer/director Julia Ducournau, was (in)famous before it was even released. After causing several audience members to vomit and pass out during its premiere at TIFF in 2016, cinema outlets (including this one) took notice; much was made of the fact that an ambulance had been called, and Raw joined the ranks of films like The Exorcist and The Green Inferno as examples of films that pushed viewers over the edge. When Raw had its limited theatrical release earlier this year, the Nuart Theater in Los Angeles took it upon themselves to include custom made barf bags with the price of admission, a buzz-generating tactic usually employed for screenings of B-movies.
For these and other reasons, horror fans can be excused for imagining Raw is a shallow exercise in shock and depravity, which is a damn shame. Raw is so much more than a movie that produces visceral reactions, and the outlandish reputation the film unintentionally gained may have become a distraction and a detriment. At the very least, the exaggerated reports created a series or preconceptions that can only be challenged by seeing the film for yourself—which I absolutely recommend!
Official Synopsis: Stringent vegetarian Justine (Garance Marillier) encounters a decadent, merciless and dangerously seductive world during her first week at veterinary school. Desperate to fit in, she strays from her principles and eats raw meat for the first time. The young woman soon experiences terrible and unexpected consequences as her true self begins to emerge.
There’s enough subtext in Raw in fill a doctoral dissertation, so keeping my thoughts to around 1,000 words won’t be easy (another reason to see this film for yourself).
First and foremost, Raw is a “coming of age” film; there are scenes where the song Freshmen by the Verve Pipe wouldn’t have seemed out of place. It communicates its messages by employing body horror and extreme images of mutilation and consumption. It may indeed be just as nauseating as you’ve heard, but context is everything. Raw is a serious drama as much as a horror movie, meaning the gore isn’t cartoonish or purposely excessive in the slightest. This makes each level of intensification (and there are several) truly shocking. There are several moments where you might think the gore has topped out—but you’d be wrong. Raw keeps dropping new twists at every turn, creating a film that’s as mentally discombobulating as it is grotesque. Had Raw been released a decade ago, I had no doubt it would have been grouped along with films of the now-defunct New French Extremity subgenre, a category that includes shockers like Frontier(s), Martyrs, and Inside, not to mention In My Skin, another movie that explores obsessive wounding and consumption of flesh.
In Raw, lead protagonist Justine (played with brilliance by Garance Marillier) begins a Siddhartha-esque quest towards self-discovery, but instead of crossing the extremes between opulence and poverty, Justine is riding the pendulum between repression and freedom. As a minor under her parents’ tyrannical control, Justine is told how to look, how to behave, and even how to eat. The shackles are cast off when she leaves home for college. The repressed virgin/scholar/vegetarian is exposed to a world of sex, drugs, and meat she never even knew existed. As can be expected, the young adult lacks the maturity and impulse control to venture cautiously into new territories, although the intense hazing she endures makes it impossible to use better judgment. And it’s worth noting that hazing is a near-perfect metaphor for the difficulties of transitioning from childhood into adulthood. Is it possible to learn balance until you’ve experienced both extremes?
While I’m an only child, even an orphan can see that sibling rivalry is an integral component of Raw. Ella Rumpf is superb as Justine’s sister Alexia, and the relationship between sisters is central to both the plot and the emotional core of the film. The fact that she’s an upperclassman at the same school Justine attends means two things: Alexia was involved in her hazing, and (more importantly) they are very close in age. This means the feelings of rivalry between classmates is intensified by lifetimes of competing for parental affections, living in one another’s’ shadows. This relationship is very real and hardly two-dimensional; they are allies as much as competitors, a united front against repressive parents. No one understands Justine like Alexia, and she seeks to nurture and educate her little sister as much as she’d like to eat her alive.
Raw is genius in the way it obliterates barriers between humans and animals without ever feeling overhanded, preachy, or even political; its clinical presentation makes statements and poses questions without telling you how to feel or what to think. A scene of a horse on a treadmill parallels the life of a first-year student, forced to keep up an arbitrary pace while confined and equipped with blinders. At a communal meal, someone poses the hypothetical question of whether raping an animal (specifically a monkey) is the same as assaulting another human. It’s not a debate: It’s an idea that sticks in your brain, congealing with other concepts of animal consciousness and the morality of being both enlightened and omnivorous. Where this thread leads depends on the individual, but rest assured there is no “Vegetarian Agenda” at play.
Considering Raw is so exquisitely crafted we must assumed everything has meaning, even the characters’ names. The most famous Justine in literature is the tormented heroine of Justine, ou Les Malheurs de la Vertu by OG pornographer Marquis de Sade. Both works tell of a virgin/maiden enduring a series or often humiliating trials and tribulations, all of which contribute to her personal sexual awakening. What makes the connection even more concrete is the way sisterhood plays into the Marquis’s novella. At the stories conclusion, it is revealed that the narrator is actually Justine’s sister.
The irony [of Justine’s conclusion] is that her sister submitted to a brief period of vice and found herself a comfortable existence where she could exercise good, while Justine refused to make concessions for the greater good and was plunged further into vice than those who would go willingly.
The conclusion of Raw is a warped mirror of this novella’s conclusion, as we see the fates of two sisters who will hopefully take different paths. I say hopefully, because while Raw’s Justine may have escaped imprisonment and arrived at a point of self-realization, how she proceeds with this knowledge is left unknown—and the possibilities are terrifying.
At 33, Julia Ducournau will hopefully enjoy a long and successful career; I’ll check out anything she releases without question, and no matter what reports from early screenings might have me believe. Actress Garance Marillier has superstar potential. She delivers her performance with such smoldering commitment, such authenticity, you might swear she’s breaking the fourth wall. Any project that sees these two women reunited would be a guaranteed success.
Bottom Line: Raw is just as grotesque as you’ve heard, but probably much deeper than you’ve been led to believe. I’m barely able to scratch the surface of the film and its harrowing subtexts in a traditional film review. Raw is brutal and extreme but also authentic and compelling; difficult to watch but completely engrossing, with characters that are as easy to love as they are hate. As we near the half-way point of 2017, Raw is a contender for best horror movie of the year. Don’t miss it.