starring Garance Marillier, Ella Rumpf, Rabah Naït Oufella, Marion Vernoux
written and directed by Julia Ducournau
by Walter Chaw A spiritual blood sister of Claire Denis's Trouble Every Day, Julia Ducournau's feature debut Raw is a crystallization of the last couple years' steady creep towards unabashedly gyno-centric fare. Kimberly Peirce's unfairly derided Carrie, which Raw references in one of its canniest, funniest moments, gathers monstrously in the rearview as a film doomed to have been just ahead of its time--literally hours away from being justly hailed as harbinger of a period of Furiosas and Reys, of It Follows and The Witch and The Green Room and more. As genre fare, Raw is as raw as it could be, the tale of a vegan first-year veterinary school student named Justine (Garance Marillier) who is submitted to a series of cruel hazing rituals that introduce her to body-image issues, existential crises, eating disorders, and the taste of sweet, sweet animal protein. You know, freshman year. Ducournau captures it all beautifully: the horror of being away, of surrendering to the higher university mind, of experimenting with drugs and drink and sex and becoming a full inhabitant of the desires and fears that will fuel the rest of your life. There's a scene early on where Justine visits a doctor (French writer and director Marion Vernoux) that reminds of the sequences in Jacob's Ladder where Jacob visits his angelic chiropractor. It's shot differently from the rest of the film. It's brighter. The film will never be this bright again.
The doctor debrides dead skin from a weird rash Justine's developed. She lights a cigarette and tells Justine a story about a fat patient desperate to fit in. "How do you see yourself?" she asks Justine. "Average," Justine says. The doctor snorts and tells her to find a quiet place to wait it out. We're not sure what she's talking about. And we know exactly what she means. Raw is like this: a film that is obviously a metaphor but smart enough to avoid being didactic about it. Justine suffers a series of indignities and witnesses endless atrocities. There's a part where she sneaks a burger patty in the commissary that Ducournau shoots exactly like Antonia Bird shot the steak dinner in Ravenous. In the moment immediately following, she shows Justine take an unusual, even ghoulish, interest in the victim of a car crash. It's a reminder of the mysterious prologue of the piece, and of the inciting incident in Bustillo & Maury's awesome extreme French film Inside--and a bellwether, of course, of Justine's continuing interest in exploring every pleasure of the flesh, and every iteration of the idea of consummation. Raw understands the eating of meat as an analogue to holy communion; Justine is reborn in the flesh. Note how she eats meat in public for the first time: greedily, ravenously, while an unctuous pig farmer notes how alike people are to swine.
Raw is about taking things in and spitting things out. Justine's older sister Alexia (Ella Rumpf), an upperclassman at the school, is party to Justine's underclassman torture rituals. She helps round frosh out of bed, cover them in blood and paint, introduce them to Ecstasy and raves. She represents the completed product to Justine's evolving project: she's sexually confident (giving Justine a Brazilian wax that turns out disastrously), exuding punk sophistication in full rebellion against their stodgy, ridiculous parents. Justine resists her at first. Antagonistic at times, tender at others, their relationship is what drives the picture. They fight, physically, viscerally, and in the film's best, most hilarious scene ("hilarious" in every sense of it), Justine does something absolutely unthinkable to Alexia. But they're sisters. And they love each other. It's honest. One of the fascinations of Raw is how, as the film progresses, they approach one another. Alexia becomes the scold and Justine becomes animalistic, out of control, and hot as chicken supper.
Raw charts sexual growth, maturity, independence. The cannibalism is portrayed viscerally; it's almost unwatchable at times in exactly the same way as Trouble Every Day or Ravenous. Isn't it interesting how so many of the best cannibal movies are directed by women? The cannibalism is a metaphor, of course--for desire and transformation, religion and rite. Here it's also what it is for its own sake, and it's a way to create extreme discomfort. It's only as effective as it is, though, because of the lengths to which cannibalism is tied to symbol and representative of something else. Loss of innocence, sure, but particularly the carnal awakening of heretofore unnursed desires. Justine looks at her gay friend Adrien's (Rabah Nait Oufella) taut body with the same hunger with which she considers a raw filet in her fridge during the hunt for a midnight snack. She seduces him somehow. She bites her wrist when she orgasms to prevent herself from biting him, we ken. When Justine awakes to her sexuality, it's a moment that lands right exactly between Taxi Driver's mirror sequence and Ms. 45's lipstick application, yet Ducournau is more than mere imitation artist: She understands her sources and what they mean in their context--and now in hers. She is De Palma and Argento in the '70s, when they were ripping off Hitchcock with the conversance and wit of great critics and philosophers. Raw is a sleek, sexy, stylish post-modern take on the too-brief French Extreme cinema on its surface that finds relevance, maybe eternity, in its further examination of what it means to be a young woman at this point in her personal evolution. It's as stunning a debut as any in years. If it's not for the faint of heart, it's also essential. Just like freshman year.