Garance Marillier and Ella Rumpf star in writer/director Julia Ducournau's unique and rare film.
It's hard to maintain one's identity when university begins; or perhaps more to the point, find your identity under enormous pressure to do well in school, adapt to life without constant parental supervision, not to mentions the pressures of the first sexual encounters.
In her first feature film, writer and directer Julia Ducournau tears down to the bone, the messiness of young adulthood, in a film that owes as much to the exploration of female sexuality in the films of Catherine Breillat, as it does to the earlier body horror films of David Cronenberg. Raw is made by someone who understands deeply the audacity and vulnerability of youth, and finds its expression with such viscerality and raw (pun not intended) power.
Justine (Garance Marillier), a smart, tomboyish girl, joins her sister Alexia (Ella Rumpf) at veterinary school, in the footsteps of their parents. The family are also strict vegetarians; but during a freshman hazing ritual, Justine is forced to eat raw meat. Suddenly, she's got a rash and some cravings that go beyond what you might find at the butcher shop, and Alexia is hiding something that hints at a disturbing family secret.
Marillier is mesmerizing as Justine, a girl who (at first) fully embraces both her future as a vet, and her identity as a vegetarian. She is not shy, but has no desire for any conformity, prefering the comfort of her own skin. In opposition, Alexia (an equally great performance by Rumpf), is the wild sister, who lacks Justine's natural intelligence, and so makes up for it in wild abandon.
Justine's initial reluctance to participate in the hazing rituals is squashed by Alexia, who knows that eventually, Justine will discover her true nature, and it's Alexia's job to teach her how to live with it (or even enjoy it). They are at odds in personality, but bonded by their shared family heritage, and that bond leads to both affection and blows.
It is rare that such a strong authorial voice is found in a first feature, but Ducournau goes in head first, taking a harsh look at how society treats the young, how it treats young women, and how young women treat themselves. The hazing rituals are conducted by both men and women of the senior classes, and yet evoke the most terrifying stories of such events perpetrated by male collegiates, including bodily humiliation, drug use, sex, all of which will be ready for audiovisual consumption in the age of phone cameras and easy internet access. Everyone is complicit.
In her navigation of this world, and her strange cravings which are almost unstoppable, Justine finds herself not only at odds with her own moral code, but her lack of experience leaves her ill-equiped to fight off control of her own body from those forces and people that seek to put her in her place.
And the realization of these cravings is something to behold. Horror film fans might think themselves (as I have) desensitized to violence and gore. But the effects team have done such as remarkable job, with torn flesh, bites, and blood, that I frequently found myself shielding my eyes; if only I could have shielded my ears as well, as the sounds effects team deserves equal credit. Duournau has set up an aesthetic of European low-budget art-house film, a sense of verisimilitude, to further drive home the allegory, and this extends to the effects and sound, with a score by Jim Williams that evokes both the generic French countryside, and the ongoing discord of Justine's mental and emotional state.
Certainly, coming-of-age films that use genre semantics are not uncommon, but Raw takes this to another level, in fact questioning the use of the semantic while finding its central power and horror. As an allegory of the discovery of identity, shifting sexuality, the sexual power of women, and the first steps into adulthood, it's a unique and rare film, that will hopefully (and deservedly) find an audience beyond genre film fans.
Review originally published during the Cannes Film Festival in May 2016. The film opens in select U.S. theaters on Friday, March 10, via Focus World.