For all of the depravity that follows, Raw starts off in a manner familiar to anybody who’s ever seen a coming-of-age story about a young college student hoping to find themselves. And in a fashion, that’s exactly what Justine (Garance Marillier) does when she enrolls in the same prestigious veterinary school as the rest of her family. Her older sister Alex, or Alexia (Ella Rumpf), is a current student and understands what’s about to happen to Justine: a series of increasingly alarming hazing rituals, designed to build loyalty among new recruits and weed out the weak early. In this case, “the weak” extends to anyone who refuses to eat raw rabbit innards within the first few hours of arriving at school, after being doused in animal blood. To Justine, it’s revolting, having come from a home where vegetarianism is sternly enforced with an almost conservative zeal. To Alex, who tells Justine that “it’s nothing, everybody does it” and “you’ll be happy you did it,” it’s just part of gaining entry into the ‘cool’ group.
Julia Ducournau’s feature-length debut is a thoroughly nasty piece of horror filmmaking, but it’s also a frequently thoughtful one, and this starts with the film’s surreal early sequences, in which the common harassments of college freshmen (bedsheets thrown out the window and to the ground, compulsory trips through crawlspaces in the dead of night) collide with the constant presence of animal musculature in unsettling ways. It’s more than familiarity that Justine lacks; she’s a deer in headlights, a consummate innocent who’s torn between Alex’s insistences that “the first year is the best” and the pressures of being both a legacy student and a young woman who’s been kept unwise to the ways of the world.
Throughout Raw, Ducournau allows for little in the way of comfortable disconnection, which will certainly repulse some audiences. Others will embrace the physicality of the film, which eventually stands as one of its boldest and most admirable traits. When Justine finally tastes animal meat for the first time, the reaction is initially harsh: her entire body breaks out in hives, ones she bloodily scratches at in one of the film’s many gruesome body horror sequences. But despite the terrifying, unbidden changes, Justine develops a taste for it. For more and more of it. Before long, she’s stealing hamburger patties from the lunch line to enjoy another dose of what she’s always been refused. And eating raw chicken breasts out of the fridge in the middle of the night. And fantasizing about the rippling musculature of a horse as it bucks on a treadmill, and later that of her roommate Adrien (Rabah Nait Oufella) as he plays soccer without a shirt on.
If Raw is hardly subtle in its depiction of burgeoning womanhood, from the social to the sexual, Ducournau delivers the film’s parable with a candor that suits it perfectly. Crucial to her success is Marillier’s game performance, one so fearless that it’s almost alarming as a point. Ducournau is obsessed with the messiest aspects of humanity throughout the film, and that’s hardly limited to the viscera that eventually becomes the centerpiece of Raw. As Justine continues to psychologically spiral under the twin pressures of academia and self-discovery, Raw concerns itself with vomit and blood and open wounds and all other manner of nasty business; early on, Justine starts to cough up a strand of hair that she eventually has to pull out of her mouth a little at a time, a punishment for all of her nervous chewing on strands. (Ducournau ends the scene with one of the film’s many viciously dark punchlines, a highlight throughout.) Yet Marillier never allows Justine to sink into caricature, even in some of the film’s most shocking scenes. Her slow evolution from prey to predator is teased out by the actress in small strokes, from her wiry anxiety early on to a slyly brilliant sequence in which she learns how to seduce her own reflection in front of a mirror before a house party, given over to her newfound power.
Humiliation is also central to the film, but one of the most transgressive things about Raw is how Ducournau keeps the focus on the unjust judgment of others, rather than the shame Justine internalizes throughout, even when her appetites inevitably grow more sinister. There’s a hideousness not just to the aggressive practices on campus, but to the thickly crowded house parties that act as an ostensible reward for the students’ suffering. Ducournau frames them as endless, overwhelming hallways of human flesh pressed together to the tune of deafening music, which at first unsettle Justine and eventually become her hunting grounds, gazing drunken and spread-legged at the endless throng of bodies to be devoured. (For both Justine and others, Ducournau visualizes bodies as much for their musculature as their sexuality throughout, all flailing limbs and appetizing meat. It’s a sly, disquieting touch.) There’s a sharp, insightful juxtaposition between Justine’s new appetites and her growing sense of self, and it elevates Raw well beyond the point of cheap provocation and into the realm of the artistically and emotionally provocative.
But lest we bury the lede for too long, Raw is also an abrasively gross film throughout. As you might expect from a film about a different kind of carnivore, Ducournau adorns the film’s violent setpieces with unfussy photography, hardly shying away from the repulsive nature of Justine’s awakening. Yet again, this isn’t a film interested in the lazy assignment of guilt; even as she begins to waste away and Alex grows increasingly concerned, Raw is as much about the power of discovering one’s truth as the potential hazards of doing so. All the same, it’s also a film about cannibalism in all of its savagery, in both the “people who eat people” sense and in the ways that young people so often devour themselves and their identities to feel a sense of belonging in the world. And as you might expect of a film on the topic, Raw is a sick piece of work.
Early in the film, a nurse tells Justine of a victimized young girl she once treated, saying that “she stood out. She probably wanted to be average. How do you see yourself?” The tension between achievement and uncontrollable impulse drives Raw, and Justine’s story within it, but even as she settles into her brutal new life and the origins of her unusual tastes begin to emerge, Ducournau maintains her humanity. To grow into oneself is noble, the film argues, but to do so unrepentantly, without care for the world’s polite standards or the shame it assigns? That’s a truly honest life. And whatever one might say of Justine, let it never be said that she lived a lie. Like Raw, she approaches her most honest self with a mixture of fear and strength, picking the excess meat out of her teeth as she goes. It’s just one more casualty of growing up, but she’ll find a solution someday.