Julia Ducournau makes her debut and directs Raw, a must-see body horror French film about a young woman who leaves home for the first time to attend veterinary school. I will warn you that even hardcore horror lovers squirmed with discomfort while laughing at how Raw really goes there and commits to its concept of discovering your identity.
The best horror films take a look at how life is then explores the corners of that room instead of safely sitting on the sofa and ignoring the dust bunnies. Raw grasps that it is a strange coming-of-age ritual to leave your parents, who protectively hover over you and treat you like a child, to go to people with suspect motives who will exploit your obedience and malleability and throw you in the deep end of the adult pool of sex, drugs and alcohol. Somehow you are supposed to emerge from this pool a fully functioning and capable member of society, but Raw shows viewers that you may be surprised what you find lurking underneath the depths before you come up gasping for air.
Based on the title and the promotional materials for Raw, I do not think that it is a spoiler that Justine, the main character, inadvertently discovers that she is a cannibal. Cannibalism can be a metaphor for a lot of things: an eating disorder or an addiction to alcohol or drugs. Raw uses cannibalism to explore numerous themes. First, Raw illustrates the idea of shame/pride when you discover and embrace your thing. Raw has numerous images of people openly engaging in sexual acts and not being ashamed when they are unexpectedly interrupted, but there is also this idea of furtive pleasure and shame in engaging in an act because the person thinks that she is the first person to ever do this thing and is afraid of what others may think. Whatever you are experiencing, Raw shows that someone else has already been there and done that, which is frighteningly liberating.
Second, Raw depicts the concept of boundaries and how even a place with no boundaries, there are still limits. Even in a place where people are expected to dress like sluts and make out with strangers’ eyeballs (consider yourself warned), when Justine finally embraces her kink, she freaks everyone out. If you want to know what your limits are, have a woman do it. Nothing is more off putting to others than a woman who really has no boundaries and is willing to make out with everyone, cause harm and unleash her fury. These limits are not necessarily a bad thing because cannibalism taken to its extreme is murder, but considering how much male conduct is excused and normalized, Raw approaches similar behavior and uses a female protagonist to see how far this behavior can go. The answer is pretty far.
Third, Raw examines the intention behind sculpting or influencing young minds. Raw has the macrocosm of a university where professors and older students are trying to influence the first year students and the backdrop of parents’ establishing what is appropriate or not throughout childhood. Raw also has the microcosm of Justine’s relationship with her older sister. The relationship between sisters can be protective and nurturing, but the relationship is also a way for the older sister to tell herself a reassuring story about how to correctly navigate life, especially as a woman. Wear this dress, have a Brazilian, just eat the raw rabbit. Everything is fine. This is how we (women) are supposed to act. The older sister sheds a single tear when she wakes from shock for multiple reasons: betrayal, recognition and understanding. People are familiar with the older sister, but she seems just as lonely and friendless as Justine except instead of a roommate, she has a dog as her only friend.
Raw succeeds at showing how Justine emerges from the pool, changed, perhaps damaged, but also distinct from the other women in her life, particularly by confronting images of herself (in the mirror or as recorded by others) and other women (her sister at the glass partition). Raw has an amazing extended sequence that feels like an allusion to the Narcissus as Justine dances and makes out with herself to a sexually explicit song. The one scene with the doctor really grounds Raw in reality-being different means experiencing daily micro-aggressions without complaining or realizing that it is not normal. You will have to watch Raw to find out who Justine becomes.
Raw is a French movie so there are plenty of subtitles, but if you are a horror fan, it is worth putting on the reading glasses and seeing it on the big screen. Jim Williams’ score is reminiscent of John Carpenter and other horror masters’ soundtracks. Even the bold credits are arresting. I am not sure why Justine’s color is blue: the dress and the paint. Raw also seems to be making a point about French culture and how the French ruthlessly exploit refugees in its own journey for self-discovery. I will never understand the French film obsession with arranging for women and gay men to have sex. I find it hilarious that everyone smokes, including the doctor in the examination room and fathers with their daughters. I was not surprised by the ending reveal, but thought it was great. Raw never ends.
Julia Ducournau is the new body horror champion. Watch out, David Cronenberg! Horror lovers are lucky to be alive during this resurgence of great horror movies like It Follows, The Guest, Get Out and Raw.
Sarah G. Vincent is an infovore who is originally from NYC and has lived in Massachusetts since 1993. She received an A.B., cum laude, in History and Film Studies from Harvard University in 1997 and received a J.D. from Harvard Law School in 2000, where she was also an editor and arts reporter at the Crimson/FM and worked at the Harvard Film Archives. After graduating from Harvard Law School, she published “The Cultural Context of the Shopping Mall: Tension Between The Patron’s Right of Access and the Owner’s Right to Exclude.” She is in a committed, exclusive spiritual relationship with the Triune God and for more information, directs readers to look at the Apostle’s Creed.