Julia Ducournau’s debut French Language horror Raw fully delves into a world of compromised values, reprehensible university initiations…and cannibalism.
The plot follows fresh-faced student Justine (played by Garance Marillierin in her feature debut) as she commences her placement in veterinary school. If the monstrous initiation rituals weren’t reprehensible enough, Justine is forced to undermine her vigilant vegetarianism by eating a raw rabbit’s kidney. This instigates an insatiable hunger for flesh that spirals further and further out of control.
Upon arrival, her parents ask if she is taking note of her surroundings to which she responds, “I’m already lost”. This is perhaps the best early indicator of Justine’s feelings on identity and displacement, exemplified almost immediately by the invasion and ransacking of her dorm in the middle of the night by older students. The scene is horrifying in its depiction of university hazing, which almost resembles the collapse of civilised society as masked figures in lab coats force “rookies” out of their rooms to stand in single file formation in the hallways as they are ridiculed, berated and their personal belongings are tossed out of windows. Any traditional notions of individualism are abandoned as the “rookies” are forced to crawl on their hands and knees like animals to a nightmarish rave. The use of strobe lighting as they crawl towards the camera also brings zombie-related imagery to mind. Whether they look like animals or zombies, the “rookies” are reduced to a mindless inhumane mass of bodies.
Ducournau’s cinematic sensibility is already on full abrasive form at this point, as a long unbroken take upon entering the rave provides an overwhelming and unrelentingly claustrophobic sense of anarchy that seems inescapable to both Justine and the audience. When Justine finally locates her sister (Alexia) who is an older student, they sneak off to view their parents’ class initiation photo featuring all the first year students covered in blood. Justine herself goes through this ritual in an upcoming scene, which is constructed similarly to Brian de Palma’s Carrie as buckets of blood are poured over the “rookies” when the photo is taken. Un-permitted to shower, Justine and the other “rookies” must go about their studies and other rituals whilst soaked in blood.
At the point of being instructed to eat a raw rabbit’s kidney, Justine’s strict vegetarian upbringing is irrelevant even to her own sister. Alexia had to do it too, as did their parents. The influences around Justine – her sister, university professors, her roommate – constantly state the importance of initiation and “not standing out” which render her principles and her disinterest in reprehensible hazing to be irrelevant. After her first taste of meat, Justine’s body reacts by developing a skin-crawling Cronenberg-ian body-horror influenced rash. The make-up effects and sound design of her scratching the bloody rash will send shudders down the spine of even the most hardened horror enthusiast. Every poke or scratch is felt and resonates in a revoltingly realistic sense, highlighting the Cronenberg influence regarding the sub-genre of body-horror which utilizes physical or body orientated decay to provoke a mindful response. For Justine, the forbidden fruit has been tasted and she realizes there are no limits to her hunger for flesh.
At times, Raw is beautifully stylised yet predominantly holds a sense of tangible realism that will strike a chord of relatability to anyone who has felt as if they don’t fit in or has been forced to repress their differences. Being a cannibalistic body-horror, these themes are obviously cranked up to eleven and handled without compromise, which obviously makes it more appropriate for audiences with stronger stomachs. Jim Williams’ score adds to the discomfort through an appropriately jarring mix of ominous humming and dramatic synth-infused punctuations that are reminiscent of the prog-rock soundtracks in films such as Suspiria.
Whilst the nauseating detail and gruesome imagery has been enough to prompt walk-outs and even instances of fainting in screenings of Raw, it is clear that Ducournau’s intent is not solely to disgust or shock. The film’s use of such imagery confronts audiences head-on with the aforementioned notions of identity, isolation, and abandonment of personal principles. Herein lies a left field coming-of-age story where Justine’s horrifying realization of what she has done and where she is going provokes introspection and discourse among audiences. Perhaps Ducournau’s arguably premature exposure to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre at the age of 6 suitably equipped her with an un-restrained cinematic sensibility and the power of well-crafted themes and ideas situated within unspeakable horror.