Overview: A gifted veterinarian student finds her dietary and personal values challenged through a triggering event at college. Petit Film; 2016; Rated R; 99 minutes.
Let it Sink In: Raw bared its flesh at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival. Adding to its critical success in Europe was the story that several audience members at the Toronto International Film Festival had to receive medical attention after fainting, a tried and true horror marketing ploy that, no matter how valid, always gets my attention. It delivers on its promise to be shocking, but it’s also brilliantly packed with symbolism and human commentary, and that’s what makes it most delicious.
Against Her Will: As Justine, Garance Marillier brings a looming danger to the character with her heavy, animal gaze sweeping over her peers. The camera follows and instills us with the same strange hunger she’s feeling. Everyone around Justine can tell that she’s a gifted veterinary student. She seems to hold a medical curiosity that, before it gives way to the grotesque, serves her well at school. Her logic even alienates her with her matter-of-fact views on animal rights, offending her peers when equating animal rape with the human crime. To Justine, animals and people are exactly the same.
There’s a fair amount of talk about rape in Raw. This isn’t surprising, since most of what happens to Justine is against her will. As a strict vegetarian and a virgin, she takes extreme care about what happens to her body, and she presents a strong personal moral code. But it seems everyone in her environment wants to puncture her walls, even indirectly. At the opening of the film she accidentally ingests meat hidden in her mashed potatoes by a careless lunchlady. Her mother then confronts the worker even after Justine asks her to leave it alone. Her sister Alexia (Ella Rumpf) plucks at her eyebrows and strongarms her into a bikini wax. A rabbit kidney is forced down her throat. Her body is groped and pushed and degraded through rush week.
The kidney is a trigger, just part of the strange and frightening hazing rituals that take place at Justine’s school. There’s a sense of tradition and bullied camaraderie throughout, an obvious power play between students to which the faculty doesn’t bat an eye, even when students arrive to class covered in blood, wearing diapers, or severely lacking sleep. Despite the ingestion of raw flesh, the hazing portion of Raw often feels most terrifying for its bold and unpredictable presence. Justine harbors these same scary strengths, but her struggle is private and, at first, is easily contained. Nobody is paying attention or coming to the aid of the rookie veterinarians as they are routinely humiliated and offended.
Raw wants to be in your face, encroach on our boundaries too, and one of the best ways it does so is through the use of sound. Every sound, especially the organic, is enunciated. Sometimes it’s atmospheric breathing or heartbeats ramping up the tension. Other times it’s lips smacking, teeth chewing, sex churning, squidgy scratching sounds that wrinkle the nose. Heightening these effects breeds a palpable anxiety within Justine. Two scenes in particular reach towards maddening claustrophobia, one the queasy feelings of being trapped in itchy skin and the other under a sheet letting in just enough light for Marillier to display her powerhouse of a performance. Justine’s anger manifests as hunger and she lets it take over her body and mind completely.
The XX Factor: Julia Ducournau not only captures a compelling story in a stylish film with Raw, she also taps into the feminine mysteries that are so precious and rare on screen. One scene, just a sliver in the runtime, shows Alexia and Justine laughing together while attempting to pee standing up. We all have or know a story about this. There are multiple frank and sardonic comments about eating disorders spoken of the same way we do late at night, a side-effect of our sad self-esteem-starved reality. A conversation between Justine and the school doctor reveals a touching and too-familiar story about medical professionals’ view of extra body weight. After all, being a woman involves a lot of awareness about our bodies and their constant state of transformation. Ducournau puts this on display and challenges it with her unique take on the feminine experience.
The turning point of this transformation story takes place because of Alex’s comments about Justine’s natural body hair, gifting us with a scene many of us can appreciate: the hell that is our first at-home bikini wax. By this time, Justine has dealt with so much boundary crossing she’s more passive than usual. Combined with the deeply complex sibling relationship, she allows her sister to wax her. “Everyone does it”, after all. Justine’s reaction as a first-timer is not exaggerated as she screams out “It’s torture!” and, at the height of her fear and pain incites the incident that will allow her to fully cross her own personal lines. In the end, and largely because of this, she will exude an unfamiliar heightened sensuality by giving herself over to her many desires.
The pain runs deep in Raw, but so do the bonds. Justine’s family holds a strong tradition of vegetarian veterinary skills, and though we’re only given a glimpse, it seems like they live a specific comfortable lifestyle. Laurent Lucas (Alleluia, Calvaire) is given a small role as Justine’s father and even with his limited screen time, adds to the strong cast. Rumpf gives an understated and heartbreaking performance that complements Marillier’s completely. No matter what happens between the sisters, they display a sense of solidarity that cannot be erased even by the most hurtful acts. When they come face to face they must confront not only each other but their shared history and see if they are able to come out the other side together.
Overall: There’s plenty to be squeamish about in Raw, but it boasts equal strength in its themes of transformation, desire, and womanhood. Julia Ducournau has created a masterful, necessary addition to the genre that is totally unmissable.
Featured Image: Focus World