Could this French-Belgian cannibal thriller truly be as gruesome, gory and disturbing as people say it is, and if so, can you actually stomach a viewing?
A film’s reputation tends to precede itself, especially in an age when social media enables film festival attendees the opportunity to log split-second reactions to movies that aren’t even properly released until the year or two that follows. Usually, festival buzz involves future Oscar potential, or some sort of newsworthy storyline that emerges after a premiere (Birth of a Nation‘s 2016 Sundance mega-purchase comes to mind), but in the rare case of Raw, the hype was probably more likely to lead people away from the film than toward it. During its midnight premiere at the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival, paramedics were called to the scene after audience members fainted or became nauseous, and the overall reaction was mostly shock and a little disgust. Immediately, the film generated the kind of hype that used to accompany schlocky genre fare from the ’60s and ’70s: Could this French-Belgian cannibal thriller truly be as gruesome, gory and disturbing as people say it is, and if so, can you actually stomach a viewing?
The answer to the first half of that question is a resounding “yes.” Raw is sure to get under the skin of even the most seasoned horror hound. The film takes to acts of transgression like a kid on Christmas morning, ripping unopened presents—or, in this case, human flesh—to shreds without thinking twice, owing partial stylistic debt to Herschell Gordon Lewis and his infamous “splatter” films. For all the blood and guts, though, the film’s biggest impact, and easily its most affective element, is the figurative heart at the center. True to its name, Raw is an unfiltered emotional experience that centers on a dual character study far more powerful and disquieting than even the most extravagant blood feast. The severed fingers and chewed-up limbs are horrific works of prosthetic genius, but the unique intimacy director Julia Ducournau’s creates with her characters is incredible, pushing the film past the realm of mere exploitation.
As for the second part of the question—can you actually stomach a viewing?—that depends largely on your temperament for female stories and refined European filmmaking, things you don’t often encounter in genre-oriented cinema. That’s particularly true of the former. Neither in movies nor in life do people commonly ask women what they desire. Feminine cravings are still treated as a threat, both literally and existentially. And so Raw asks: What happens when female desire is as dangerous and grotesque as we fear? The answer might lie in Justine (Garance Marillier), a college freshman who comes to understand her body and sexuality by way of the great taboo of cannibalism. Attending a bizarro version of veterinary college (more on that later), Justine arrives on campus and is immediately plunged into a series of sadistic hazing rituals alongside her fellow freshmen, in which being doused in horse blood is only the beginning. Overseen by her tougher, worldlier older sister, Alexia (Ella Rumpf), Justine—shy, diminutive, vegetarian—is forced into a series of embarrassing and even dangerous acts, including the consumption of raw rabbit kidney, which sets forth an intense craving for meat that finds her sneaking burger patties at lunch and looking like a sweaty, neurotic junkie desperate for her next score.
It isn’t until Justine accidentally slices off Alexia’s finger—a brilliantly conceived scene that’s as much body horror as it is pitch-black slapstick comedy—that she realizes animal meat is no longer sufficient. Reflecting the personal awakening taking place within Justine, the scene is sensual and patient. At first, she lightly nibbles on the freshly severed digit, but then she grows more comfortable, and therefore more voracious, and soon she’s gnawing away. Director Julia Ducournau captures it all in a single take, allowing us to soak up the moment’s twisted emotions and disturbing implications. (If we’re still looking at the screen, that is.) It’s the film’s “in or out” moment—at this point, you’re either headed for the aisles or grabbing more popcorn—but it’s also the precise moment Raw takes full shape. Ducournau could have easily settled for a routine slasher—Justine is surrounded by unwitting victims, after all—but instead, she forges a unique portrait of sisterhood. Rather than cannibalism, the director focuses on Justine and Alexia’s divergent paths and conflicting personalities, while also revealing the ways in which they’re remarkably—and eerily—similar.
With or without a cannibalistic obsession, the process of independence and self-discovery is arduous and often scary. Raw is most terrifying in the moments when Justine attempts to navigate the perils of early adulthood while under a toxic patriarchal system. Her school appears largely absent of staff and faculty and is seemingly under complete control of the malevolent upperclassmen, who teach the freshmen to weaponize sex and turn requisite campus bacchanalias into stages for torture and humiliation. These pressures, coupled with the realization that her body and desire requires extra patience and understanding, force Justine to find solace in the usual places—alcohol, boys, etc.—but as each resource quickly abandons or betrays her, she realizes that the only one capable of completely understanding her is her sister.
Of course, this particular scenario isn’t quite that neat and tidy, and Ducournau’s script reveals the layers of female camaraderie and all the affection, animosity, jealousy and compassion that comes with it. In more ways than one, Raw is a messy movie, but the director’s commanding approach is anything but. The precise plotting and dense themes feed into the film’s ambitious visual style, which encompasses everything from handheld long takes to panoramic vistas of the school’s neighboring countryside. A few key scenes take place on a desolate stretch of road, and Ducournau makes sure to frame the characters against the seemingly endless distance before them. The implication is that life can be long and lonely, but with the right person by your side—and the means to fulfill the wants and desires that make us the individuals we are—it’s possible to make it through. Not so gruesome after all.