Raw is one of those movies I wish I could say I enjoyed and engaged with more than I did. I wish I liked it more because Raw is clearly a film with ideas: ideas about appetite and sexuality, of “othering” and finding one’s identity in new environments. First time director Julia Ducournau also shows her bona-fides as an up-and-coming master of body-horror director, providing visuals that recall and match everyone from De Palma to Cronenberg and Argento. There’s a lot to chew on in Raw, but the film itself feels undercooked.
Justine (Garance Marillier) is an incoming freshman at the prestigious veterinary school both of her parents attended, and a hazing ritual involving the eating of a raw rabbit liver provides the first taste of the dangerous to the girl, who up to this point, was raised in a strictly vegetarian household. This fresh meat awakens a hunger in Justine that culminates in a taste for human flesh, and leads the doe-eyed, straight-A heroin to live an ever more deviant lifestyle in order to get her fix.
Seemingly evolving from the late-naughties Zombie craze, Cannibalism seems to be having a go at the spotlight, with other examples off the top of my head being Netflix’s Santa Clara Diet, last year’s The Neon Demon, and even a show like iZombie, where cannibalism is a symptom of the lead character’s zombism. And cannibalism is incredibly fertile ground. There’s a mythic and taboo quality to the act in almost every culture, from Native American Wendigos, to the Sin-Eaters, or certain believes relating to African animism. And other classic western horror staples like the vampire, werewolf, and zombie all have cannibalistic elements. I think what’s not connecting to me about Raw is that it takes all the horror implicit in cannibalism, plus all the culturally ingrained ideas of the cannibal as a non-human, or the double meaning of “consumption of the flesh,” and then leaves the audience to choose whatever interpretations they want rather than try to make its own point. In this way, Raw acts as a sort of cannibalism Rorschach test, handing us a cannibal at a college and asking us to find our own meaning.
Where Raw makes the most of its cannibalism is on a visual and technical level, and Ducournau does find ways to squeeze comedy as well as horror out of her leads new cravings. Probably the most effective sequence comes early. Justine’s transformation from vegetarian to “humanitarian” is a physical one. Her body breaks out in a giant rash that keeps her up at night, scratching until her own skin is raw and red. The next scene cuts to her lying on a table as the school nurse peels off the giant flakes of dead skin, symbolically revealing the cannibal underneath. It’s the type of body horror that works best because it’s the most empathetic. Sure, missing chunks of thigh or cheeks are hard to look at, but they’re also not the sort of thing most of us can empathize with. But we’ve all scratched at a rash we shouldn’t have, risking drawing our own blood if it means that the pain will distract from the itch. It’s the sort of scene that invites the audience to mirror it, and just writing about it right now has me scratching at my arms and the back of my neck.
Ducournau is aided tremendously by her lead actress, Garance Marillier, who is able to imply an inner life to Justine that the rest of the movie lacks. She starts the movie timid and watery-eyed, keeping her head down and her limbs close to her sides; but slowly gives into a bestial confidence which sharpens her expressions and turns her into a cat on the prowl. Importantly, it never feels like Justine has lost control because of her cravings; she’s not a werewolf or a zombie, and her cannibalism is a choice, an itch she’s choosing to scratch instead of apply ointment onto.
I’d also be remiss not to mention the movie’s excellent soundtrack, which is consistently weird, but highlights important moments with blaring electric guitar or church organs, making each turn into a revelation. Often, the soundtrack is the strongest signposting the movie has, overpowering some of the visuals or even dialogue when it comes to Raw’s storytelling.
I think where I really knew Raw wasn’t for me was the ending, which seems to undo a lot of the work the rest of the movie does to empathize Justine to the audience. For most of the movie, Justine’s cannibalism is framed almost as an over-eagerness to try new things. She was a life-long vegetarian until one taste of meat drove her to the carnivorous extreme. But the ending implies that her cannibalism might be a quirk of nature rather than nurture, rendering her just as “other” as a werewolf or vampire. That, more than an exacerbated lapse in judgement, Justine’s cannibalism was a predisposition; not an addiction, but a disease.
Raw feels, to me, like a movie where the director knew the story they wanted to tell, and made it without really considering that the audience wouldn’t be watching with that same story already in their head. The movie is subtitled, so it could’ve been literally lost in translation on me, but overall it feels like a movie with much more to say than it manages to put on screen. I’d also accept that Ducournau’s goal was to leave most of the film entirely up to the audience, and I ruined it all by myself by overthinking things. At the very least, Raw succeeds in establishing Ducournau as a new genre director to keep an eye on, and I look forward to her next movie, especially if it’s just as much a test of my constitution.