Written and Directed by: Julia Ducournau
Starring: Garance Marillier, Ella Rumpf, and Rabah Nait Oufella
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
What are you hungry for?
College is a great time for self-discovery. In fact, one might argue that this is its primary purpose (well, aside from crushing entire generations under mountains of debt): you get to leave home, meet new people, all while re-inventing yourself in the process. It doesnít matter who you were when you arrived, as youíll leave quite literally a different person once you learn who you truly are. Julia Ducournau takes this notion to a literal (but not exactly logical) extreme in Raw, a brilliant, black-hearted coming-of-age tale that supposes the room for self-discovery is vast. Some people go to college and find a career, some to figure out their sexual orientation, and others to find their passion, be it faith, hobbies, or service. And then some people realize their deep, ravenous desire for human flesh.
Such is the story of Justine (Garance Marillier), a vegetarian wunderkind whose arrival at veterinary college marks a new, exciting chapter in her life. She takes it all in with wide-eyed enthusiasm, though she could probably live without some of the more extreme, annoying hazing rituals enforced by the upperclassmen. One particularly stomach-churning one involves eating a rabbit kidney as a rite of passage; when she raises an objection, her classmates will have none of it. Nor will her older sister Alexia (Ella Rumpf), who has become a wild child after a few years at school. Not only does she refuse to back up Justineís claim of being a vegetarian, but also forces her younger sister to ingest the organ, unwittingly sending them both on a path towards even more gruesome discoveries about themselvesóand each other.
Raw is a gleefully perverse film, one thatís rendered all the more twisted by its directorís patience and subtlety. Ducournau realizes this is an absurd black comedy but never feels the need to directly needle the audience with knowing jabs. Rather, it unfolds with an unsettling authenticity: itís less a tightly-plotted narrative and more a free-flowing character study that finds Justine navigating the usual pitfalls of freshman year. Thereís the awful hazing, the awkward roommate situation (Justine requested a girl, but has been paired up with a gay man, which he jokes is ďthe same thingĒ anyway), and the bit of self-doubt that creeps in when she doesnít do so well on an exam, all of which is genuinely part of the college experience. If not for a cryptic, ghastly prologue, you could almost see Raw playing out as a straightforward exploration of Justine's young adult anxieties.
But there is something askew lurking beneath it all, hinted at throughout by Ducoumauís voyeuristic lens and Jim Williamsís ominous score. Gradually, the horror becomes more overt, manifesting in the form of a gnarly, disgusting rash that begins to consume Justineís skin. Itís accompanied by a sudden, insatiable craving for meatóany meat, as it turns out, whether itís a stolen hamburger patty from the cafeteria or something more, um, unnatural. Thereís a wryness to a way Ducournau builds up to the big moment that really turns the film on its head: where most movies would play it as a big, dramatic moment, Raw lets the moment unfold almost as a comedy of errors. A fidgety energy guides this pivotal scene, coaxing both nervous laughter and genuine disgust from the audience as Justine gives in to her unusual cravings. I wouldnít dare spoil the particulars since itís one of the most memorable sequences in recent memory.
Even better, it isnít the only memorable moment in Raw, not by a long shot. In fact, itís just marks the beginning of an increasingly bizarre turn of events that allows Ducournau to plunge into the black comedy latent throughout the film. What follows is jaw-dropping in both its grisliness and its gentle absurdity, and itís remarkable that it never spirals out of the directorís grasp. Ducournau has such an impressive command on the various, disparate tones the script strikes: Raw is gross, poignant, and hilarious without ever resorting to glib irony. No matter how deranged it is, it always feels like a genuine portrait of young adult anxieties. Finding yourself is already hard enough when you donít have cannibalistic instincts and a weird, contentious relationship with your sister, you know?
Beneath its lunatic impulsesówhich inspire copious amounts of brain and gut munchingóRaw is a strange tale of two sisters who are equally surprised to learn just how fucked up the other is. Justine and Alexia are both breathtakingly strange, yet somehow completely believable thanks to their respective actresses. Even when these two are stretching the limits of their new, weird obsession, you sense their authentic struggle to reckon with it. This is particularly true of Justine, and Marillier is especially stunning in a tricky role, one that requires her to transform from a wide-eyed freshman to a young woman who, quite frankly, sees some shit. Marillier is especially adept at capturing JUstine's insecurity, whether itís in the disappointed reaction to a curmudgeon professor looking to put her in her place or in the panicked look she gives when she suspects she and her sister might be attracted to the same guy (Rabah Nait Oufella).
That itís her roommate only makes the situation more complicated, as if that could even be possible given all the flesh-eating. Part of Justine's self-discovery is inevitably sexual, and the combination of unflinching horror and intimacy means Raw leaves few anxiety-inducing stones unturned. Growing up sucks: itís marked by uncontrollable hormones and desires, all of which are magnified to unreal levels here. Justine is forced to confront them all, sometimes all at once: thereís a great, darkly humorous moment when she ogles her shirtless roommate playing soccer, and youíre not sure if sheís doing it because she wants to mount him or because she wants to eat him (or bothóafter all, at one point, Justine dances along to a song about necrophilia). Eventually, we get the answer, and itís every bit as screwy as everything that precedes it.
Suffice it to say, coming-of-age stories rarely come as odd as Raw. Itís certainly akin to the likes of Ginger Snaps and Teeth (what a wild triple feature that would be) in its preoccupation with female sexuality and longing, but it also carries its own distinct flavor. With its potent blend of black humor, graphic violence, unsettling eroticism, and fascinating characters, Raw announces Ducournau as a major talent whose unique voice is immediately vital. Ultimately, she proves herself to be a masterful storyteller and jokester, as she withholds her sickest punchline until just before the credits, when she insists no amount of self-discovery will ever let you escape your fucked-up family. Itís both the cruelest and realest joke Raw has to offer: no matter how far or extreme you may go, you canít ever really be your own person.
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