PLOT: A young vegetarian finds, in the middle of her first tumultuous week of hazing at a university, that she has acquired a disquieting hunger for raw meat.
REVIEW: As far as movie universities go, the one in RAW must be among the worst. Evidently, veterinary schools are f*cking mental, especially in France, because the college our heroine Justine (Garance Marillier) attends is a truly ruthless house of degradation and merciless hazing. I suppose that's how plenty of rush weeks go, but for whatever reason the trials unleashed upon Justine and her fellow freshmen seem inordinately severe. In any case, it's just an added layer of unnerving tension to a film overflowing with it. That this is the background for Justine's most unusual and troubling coming-of-age dilemma only amplifies how richly disturbing RAW is in all facets.
I first experienced RAW at last year's Fantastic Fest, with thoughts of how it had apparently made people faint at the Toronto Film Festival fresh in my mind. (Those reports, as can be expected, were proven to be largely overblown.) I found the movie to be good, if not exactly a stand-out... But it stuck with me. I couldn't quite shake some of its images, nor its disorienting soundtrack. The revelations concerning its central characters truly haunted me. You think you know where this movie is going about 30 minutes in, but you learn it has ideas that are even more distressing. Having seen it again, I can confirm what gradually became obvious after my first viewing: RAW leaves a mark in a big way. It's a powerful, rewarding film.
Justine, coming from a well-to-do family of veterinarians, is embarking on her first week at a prestigious university, and the expectations are quite high for her. Her older sister Alexia (Elle Rumpf) already attends, but it's Justine who is viewed as the smart, responsible one. Having Alexia there will help her navigate the frantic rush week, where such fun rituals involve being splashed with animal blood and having your mattress thrown out of a window, but nothing can quite prepare Justine for the moment where she has to eat a raw kidney. A strict vegetarian, Justine is almost ready to sacrifice it all in order to avoid this chore, but Alexia's flippant insistence she go along with it leaves no choice in the matter. Justine consumes the kidney, and it surely leaves an impression, inwardly and outwardly.
Soon after, Justine finds she has a hankering for meat. Raw chicken only sates it so much, but she craves something else. You might predict where this is going, and you'd be right: turns out human flesh is the only thing that will satisfy Justine's sudden craving. But RAW is crafty; it would be easy to just turn Justine into a psycho cannibal who goes around eating her tormentors, but that's not in the cards. Instead, the film focuses on how this startling awakening within Justine becomes inextricably tied to her relationship with Alexia, as well as a newfound sexual appetite that she doesn't quite know what to do with. Bottom line: the implications of Justine's hunger for flesh are even deeper than the simple question of how to control such a disgusting urge.
Many outlets (including our own) have referred to this as "the French cannibal movie," which isn't necessarily fair. (Although it works if you're scrambling for a shorthand description, admittedly.) There is cannibalism in it, yes, but RAW is no common splatter flick. Rather, it's a coming-of-age tale surrounded by blood and ragged flesh. It can't be called a full-blown horror movie, although there are visions in it that are as gag-worthy as anything Clive Barker might conjure up: the frenzied itching of a hideous rash; the nibbling of a severed finger; the coughing up of a seemingly endless strand of hair. Director Julia Ducournau, making her feature debut, has impeccable timing when it comes to unleashing these nightmarish sights, as if to punctuate key moments in Justine's maturation. I'm sure there is plenty of metaphorical meaning within RAW - related to the anxiety of eating, the pressures of conformity, the transition from girl to woman - but regardless of the many things it is trying to say, RAW just works on a visceral level because of how tense and uncomfortable Ducournau is able to make us feel. (It's also pretty funny sometimes; not in any conventional manner, but in a squirm-inducing "I can't believe I'm laughing at this" way.)
Not only the introduction of a very promising director, RAW gifts us with an accomplished performance from young French actress Garance Marillier, who is phenomenal as Justine. Early on, her anxiety and self-consciousness are palpable; an unassuming lamb thrown into a forest of wolves. As Justine changes, so too does everything about Marillier's body language, as she frequently takes on a predatory vibe that is legit scary. A very strange sequence where Justine dances alone in front of the mirror, seemingly seducing herself, is as chilling as it is awkward; the same could be said for a ravenous sex scene that involves a very rough love bite. Justine, thanks to Marillier's bold and savvy acting, is sure to be one of the more memorable female protagonists in the genre for years to come.
I've read a few blurbs that compared RAW to the works of David Cronenberg and Roman Polanski (among others) but I don't know if that's accurate. I don't know what I'd compare it to, frankly. It is its own thing, a genuinely savage debut of an incredibly promising director featuring a great lead performance. That they are both women is significant. For a genre that could use more female voices, RAW is just what the doctor ordered. I, for one, can't wait to see what they do next.