On the outside, Julia Ducournau’s Raw seems like an endurance test. There are reports of audience members fainting and vomiting, interrupted screenings and official complaints. And all of these people have seen the R-rated version, not the original, unreleased NC-17 version. During the show I was in, a guy left twice, his girlfriend stayed on, but all three of us fidgeted and squirmed more than once. Yes, Raw is hard to watch, but once you think you can cope with the blood and guts, you will find one of the best-told horror flicks in a long time. Like Lady Macbeth last week, Raw is a feature debut in a double sense: Julia Ducournau directed her own feature-length screenplay, and Garance Marillier, who plays the main role of Justine, is a newcomer. (SPOILERS AHEAD)
What sets Raw apart from an average slasher movie is that everything takes its beginnings in Justine, the main character. What happens to her is the theme of the movie, and that’s it. We know since Hannibal Lecter that Grand Guignol characters can also scare the hell out of us, but Raw does the exact opposite. There is a person with an ever increasing problem that no human should ever have to deal with, and Justine is just as scared as we are. Raised as a vegetarian, she starts veterinary school, the same one that her older sister Alexia (Ella Rumpf) is already in. The freshers have to undergo several hazing rituals during their first weeks, involving being drenched in pig’s blood and eating raw rabbit’s liver. It’s a bizarre sight, all those students in the lecture halls with their lab coats more red than white. Justine’s vegetarian body rejects the meat at first, and she has a horrible rash and stomach aches. Then she slowly realises that what she also has are withdrawal symptoms. Something is wrong.
She is as surprised as anyone when it gradually dawns on her that she is not only a carnivore, but a cannibal. She starts stealing meat from the cafeteria and from the shared fridge. She also starts having an appetite for sex, and her gay roommate seems a safe choice for her. She eventually crosses a line, because all cannibals have to, sooner or later, and there is only one choice to make: do I stick with dead bodies (which, in Justine’s case, means visits to the morgue in the human medicine faculty next door), or do I take a bite out of the living, who might rat me out, defend themselves and maybe harm or kill me in the process? The film is startingly honest about such questions because it treats them as human questions (not humane ones, but human ones, meaning some rare humans are able to have feelings about wanting to eat other people, even if they shouldn’t feel them in any moral sense). During sex, for instance, she bites her own arm to heighten her pleasure.
Raw is, at its core, not even a horror movie, it’s a coming-of-age story. Justine needs to figure out how to be a woman, a lover, a veterinarian, a sister, but these questions get pushed to the margin because first, she needs to know how to tackle the unavoidable problem of being a cannibal, because that is what she is at her innermost, and everything else is shaped by that fact: she needs to eat human flesh. What does that mean for her, what does that mean to her? Justine is in every scene of the movie, and, for better or worse, we are allowed to watch her tackle that problem. She has a horrific but ingenious way of getting human flesh. Raw doesn’t use jump scares, and it avoids most art-house self-finding clichés and just shows her trying to find aspects about her new persona. Raw is so effective because Justine is shown as a normal person with an abnormal need, an affliction she cannot get rid of, and she is also very well played by Garance Marillier. The rest of the movie is about how she tackles that realization, and how her environment reacts to it. That, at least to me, is scarier than any mad slasher.