Julia Ducournau’s debut feature is a glorious balance of the carnivorous and the carnal. Dreamlike and watertight, Miles Jackson reviews Raw.
Everything about Raw exudes anxiety. Already having gained a degree of notoriety following reports of audience members fainting at the film’s premiere, the film is certainly not one for the squeamish.
From its churning soundtrack to the oppressively grey, concrete college campus upon which the film takes place, to the gory acts of cannibalism that have brought the film its infamous reputation, Julia Ducournau’s debut is an uncomfortable but essential watch.
For the film’s sickening shock tactics are utterly imperative to its ultimate goal; to provide a brutally realistic, feminist depiction of the pressures of body image and the struggles of sexual liberation.
there are moments in Raw that are nothing short of dreamlike
The film follows Justine (Garance Marillier), a teenage girl who arrives at a veterinarian school and soon has her stringent vegetarian beliefs stripped away after a brutal hazing by a Droog-like fraternity. Enlightened to the social stigmas of college life, the one-time veggie Justine soon begins to take refuge in the taste of meat, eventually succumbing to her deepest desires and pursuing human flesh.
Despite the film’s gruesome premise, it is most certainly not a horror film. Rather, Raw posits itself as a psychological thriller – more inline with the filmography of David Cronenberg than anything else. Indeed, as uncomfortable as the film is to watch, it never aims to scare. Rather, Ducournau leaves the audience perversely fascinated with Justine’s actions, repelled yet unable to look away.
The film expertly balances – perhaps even justifies – Justine’s cannibalistic habits by enveloping her in a world of pure dread. Ducournau, who also wrote the film’s script, perfectly exploits the universal pressures of adolescence – virginity, familial expectation, the overbearing pressure to conform – and douses them in a series of otherworldly visual metaphors.
There are moments in Raw that are nothing short of dreamlike, the gritty handheld camera and flat, brutalist setting contrasted with surreal, gloriously macabre imagery. In a world this cruel, Justine’s actions never seem malicious, rather just sad, desperate and perhaps even necessary.
Much of the reason that Justine is so relatable throughout the film is due to Marillier’s performance. A total newcomer, the French actress expertly navigates innocent naivety and depraved indulgence.
She’s matched by Ella Rumpf, another newcomer who portrays Marillier’s sister Alex. The two actors have a naturalistic camaraderie that drives the film; one of the few places Justine finds refuge is in Alex, a rebellious angsty older sister that has more in common with the innocent Justine than she might think. A scene involving a bikini wax is both revolting and hilarious at the same time, mostly due to the chemistry between the two.
Yet the most astounding revelation to be found in Raw is in its writer-director, Julia Ducournau. The film is simply one of the most assured debuts I’ve seen in a long time. Ducournau’s mise-en-scène oscillates between muggy corridors, fluorescent operating theatres and a flat expanse of grey asphalt and concrete that perfectly contrast the frequent colourful bursts of blood and paint.
The script is watertight and the film moves at an intense clip, with the naturalistic style and constant handheld camera adding an urgency to events. She further perfectly captures the protagonist’s helplessness, one shot of Justine writhing around in pain under a seemingly infinite bedsheet practically being a metaphor for the entire film.
Raw can certainly be seen as an attempt at provocation; Ducournau often has Marillier stare directly into the camera, almost as if she is confronting us, forcing the audience to look into the more malevolent aspects of themselves.
If anything, Ducournau’s visual metaphors are almost too perfect; there are moments in the film which verge on clunkily obvious in their meaning. Yet these moments are fleeting – and the imagery employed is ultimately still so memorable so as to not be more than a minor flaw.
Raw is a film I saw weeks ago now, yet it has barely left my head since. It is beguiling, offbeat and yet constantly entertaining, with a truly vicious sense of humour that perfectly offsets the grim body horror. An essential film, so long as you have a strong stomach.
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