Director: Julia Ducournau
Runtime: 99 min
One of the best things about attending film festivals and premieres is meeting the director and the movie’s main cast who, at the end of the screening, have a sit-down with the audience to discuss their film and answer any questions. This year, the 22nd Annual Rendezvous with French Cinema ended its first week with the premiere of Julia Durcounau’s debut feature film Raw which arrives in theaters March 10 in New York City. When the film ended, she came out and presented her view of the events of the story which itself takes several twists and turns, and I was solidly impressed at her command of the stage, how she managed to recreate to us the entire film through her own speech, from its initial concept, selection of the actors and what they represented as symbols, and ending to what was the running themes in her film. This is a woman who we should pay attention to because not only is her first work a bold manifestation of the horror genre, it’s a complex, and sometimes perverse take on the blood ties that bind people, for better or worse, and what can happen when one gives into the baser forms if instinct and forgets to either control it, or aim for a higher sense of self.
If it all sounds a bit metaphysical, it’s because it is. Raw is a difficult film to classify although technically it remains firmly rooted in the style and themes of both David Croneberg and David Lynch with Croneberg the dominating force. It has a short prologue involving someone running (or throwing themselves) in front of a speeding car that in a last ditch attempt not to hit the person crashes into a tree. We then see the person slowly get up and walk towards the car with potentially sinister purposes. It’s a shocking scene which will form a neat parenthetical narrative later on in the film neatly in the same way Sam Raimi’s pre-credits scene in last year’s Don’t Breathe did.
The story of Justine (Garrance Marrilier), a young teenage girl who enters veterinary school at a college where it seems there is no order and a hierarchy of hazers and bullies, it seems that Raw will go that route. And, for a few scenes, it does, but first, let me go to the beginning, when we meet her proper, post prologue. We come into Justine’s story at a restaurant with her parents as they’re on their way to drop her off at the college where she will be staying. She’s a vegan, and we come to know this when she bites on a piece of meat and has a bad reaction to it. Once she arrives to the college proper, the parents (Laurent Lucas and Joana Preiss) also make a stop at both the hospital and the morgue, It’s almost inconsequential and even dismissive (I certainly thought none of it) until we realize why.
No sooner is Justine at her dorm (and barely has time to meet her new dorm partner, the gay Adrien (Rabah Nait Oufella) that the vicious hazings begin, leading to an alcohol-fueled party that seems to go on forever. It’s there where Justine runs into her older sister Alexia (Ella Rumpf) who shows her around. The following day, however, the freshmen — Justine included — get splashed with seemingly endless amounts of blood in a sequence somewhat reminiscent of Brian De Palma’s Carrie. They are then forced to eat raw meat and Alexia instead of helping Justine wing this one, denies she’s a vegan, tells her to get over it, and forces her to eat the piece of meat. Soon after, Justine develops a horrific, cringe-inducing allergic reaction and has to go to the infirmary where a kind nurse advises her to lay low for the first year. That she does . . . except that something has changed. At lunch, she sneaks in a meat patty (that Adrien has to pay for). At night, she goes on the prowl in the dorm room kitchen for a chicken breast, which she eats raw. It’s not long before Justine’s attraction to meat intensifies and translates over to people.
Could Justine be some kind of mutant zombie? Not really, she’s far from undead and is clearly aware something is wrong with her. [Plus, the movie, while referenced by The Girl With All the Gifts, another story of a girl trying to overcome her base instincts, is less concerned about this aspect even when it presents it as episodes of mounting body-horror.] The urge to consume meat (and blood) becomes the thing she can’t control when a waxing mishap (grotesque in its own right) morphs into something unspeakable. It’s then when the film does one of a couple of neat twists, and now we’re in completely unfamiliar territory. Where a more conventional horror movie would have hinged on Justine’s secret being discovered by Adrien, or Alexia, or anyone else, Raw throws caution to the wind and attempts to merge a coming of age, a girl discovering her sexuality, and a girl becoming a higher human being instead of reverting to the lowest of passions — cannibalism.
Sisterhood is also a strong theme in Raw: one could say the movie is precisely about sisters and how their relation can swing from blissfully perfect to terrifically violent in a matter of seconds. Alexia seems to be in total control from the start — she’s older, knows the ropes, is popular. However, as the movie progresses, her character experiences a progressive dissolution. She loves Justine, but she can also be fantastically cruel for cruelty’s sake and that, I think, is the crucial difference between her and Justine. Justine is the character we project goodness even when she’s trying to figure it out, even when she reverts at times to truly bizarre behavior. The love-hate relationship between the two is something straight out of Dead Ringers and culminates in a fight sequence so vicious, I recall people walking out of the movie and not returning.
As lean as the meat that Justine finds herself attracted to, Raw is muscular and fluid and bears not an ounce of extraneous material. On the contrary, to be able to pack so much into little more than 90 minutes of screen time and still come out with a deeply disturbing tale tells of a director (Ducournau) who has a sharp eye for striking visuals, precise camera work, and who is unafraid to provoke her audience into strong reaction.
Raw opens March 10 at the Angelika Film Center.