Directed by Julia Ducournau
Raw’s reputation precedes it. Following its premier at the Toronto film festival, where paramedics were called, it’s become infamous for its grizzly content and an LA cinema allocating barf bags to moviegoers. Hell, what self-respecting genre fan wouldn’t be at least a little curious? I haven’t seen someone faint in the cinema since I caught Hard Candy (guess which scene). Yes, as per The Human Centipede or A Serbian Film before it, Julia Ducournau’s debut is known first and foremost for gross-out. This status is unfair, with Raw being more arty and thoughtful. Yet cynically I suspect the distributors’ know the best way to make a mass audience see a modestly budgeted French film is controversy.
Alas, those going for the gore will be disappointed, with more puking coming from bad hotdogs than what’s onscreen. It’s not that there isn’t any innards – and I suspect a few scenes may leave casual fans queasy. But they’re rarely the focal point in this cannibal coming of age that’s also surprisingly tender. Instead we follow the social difficulties of Justine (Marillier), a young, virginal vegetarian going to the same vet school as her punky big sister Alexia (Rumpf). Unknown to the rest of us, vets party hard and there’s hazings aplenty, with the elders making life hellish for the newbies. There’s loud raving, mattresses getting tossed out windows and blood being tossed about in an air of sexual aggression. It’s all too much for Justine: a deer in the headlights, wanting to be accepted but too innocent for the debauchery. Worse yet, there’s also obligatory meat-eating, and before too long a lifetime’s habit is lost as she scoffs down a rabbit kidney. Afterwards she finds herself developing just about the worst rash you’ve ever seen. However, by way of a fairly transparent metaphor, it gives her a taste for flesh.
Though it may not sound like it from the premise, there’s a lot of humour behind Raw. Mostly gallows of course: there’s banter about monkeys dealing with rape, a more funny than scary accident with scissors and a great visual joke when Justine fantasises about eating gay jock flatmate Adrien (Oufella). The bloody bits are uncompromising too, with money shots coming from a mixture of medical procedure and body mutilation. There are lots of horrible sounds, and tonnes of very nasty details. However, it’s rarely shlock for the sake of it, and most of the horror comes from within as Justine struggles to control her urges. Her breakdown is vividly captured by Ducournau’s invasive camera trickery, peaking in a sex scene that puts the pedestrian 50 Shades films to shame. Complimenting all this is a nauseating soundtrack that, rather appropriately, churns away in the background. In fact, of all the elements this is the one I found most sickly.
It’s not all guts – there’s also heart. Along with Justine’s self-control issues, it comes from the wonderfully realised relationships. First, there’s that between the two siblings. Theirs is a sick sibling rivalry which, when it reaches its violent climax, is truly chilling. Neither is good for the other, but considering how messed up they both are they’re stuck with each other. Marillier and Rumpf both excel in their roles, portraying their parts with skill and nuance. Marillier channels Sissy Spacek to be someone you fear and fear for in equal measure. As such, her fucked up arc is one it’s hard not to be invested in. For a first feature, this is a promising calling card. In contrast, Rumpf plays Alexia as so consciously blasé that she undermines her character’s couldn’t give a fuck attitude. Similarly, the marginally healthier bond between Justine and fellow outsider Adrien is well developed, offering a glimmer of light in an otherwise black film. Predictably it’s not straight forward, with complicated personal tensions brewing, but the way they look out for each other is at times genuinely touching.
Nonetheless, while the script is strong, something about it feels incomplete. Perhaps it’s the at times laboured parallel between sex and hunger, and then another with cannibalism as an eating disorder. Or maybe it’s the vague sense that Ginger Snaps got there first. But by the end it doesn’t entirely add up. This is further hindered by a twist regarding Alexia that comes far too early for my taste, and slightly weakens the drama of the third act. Still, the final scene ties all the strands together in a single unforgettable image. It’s teeth may not get under your skin, but it will leave a mark.
RAW is released on Friday 7th April.