In what is one of the most remarkable debut features of recent years, Julia Ducournau’s Raw manages to take a number of different ingredients from different genres, stir them all together, and make a filmic feast that is darkly delicious and rich with depth. As far as movies about cannibalism go, this French-Belgian production has all the shock factor you’d expect – so much so that early reports of vomiting and fainting have led to some cinemas handing out sick bags to audience members – but much more than that, it is a multifaceted piece of filmmaking that deals with themes of identity and humanity in an incredibly masterful way.
Grounded by a truly breathtaking performance from Garrance Marillier, the actress plays a young vegetarian named Justine, who we meet as she is dropped off for her first year or studies at veterinary school. In the film’s opening scene, we see her find a piece of meat hidden within her meal of what is primarily mash potato, to which her furious mother complains wouldn’t be acceptable if her daughter had some kind of allergy to the food.
It’s a brilliantly low-key opening scene, which perfectly sets up the rest of the film. For when Justine arrives at her campus to to find herself forced to partake in a week of “hazing” from the older students, her sister included, she has both a physical and mental reaction to eating a raw rabbit kidney, which gives her an unrelenting need to eat meat – and not just of the animal variety.
What follows is a body horror that sits up there with the works of Cronenberg, and which you’ll no doubt find yourself watching through the gaps of your fingers for some of the film’s more gruesome acts of cannablism. These moments are so well executed that Raw certainly isn’t for the faint-hearted, with all the peeling, biting and blood proving enough to turn even the most hardened horror fan into a fidgeting mass of goose flesh.
As a horror that’s purpose is to shock as opposed to scare, the film does its job well. But what sends it soaring into the stratsophere of future-classics, is the way in which it equally works as a coming-of-age drama. Through all the gore, Ducournau’s screenplay is, at its core, a story about a young woman coming to terms with her identity and sexuality under the constant pressures that surround her; pressure from her fellow students and from her sister, who expect her to behave quite recklessly for a first year student whilst she’s quite happy to focus on her studies, and pressure from her lecturers, who expect great things of her based on the successful careers of her vet parents.
Great insight is offered up in the writing, which takes a feminist stance on the coming-of-age story. And as well as creating real drama away from the shocks, it has to be said that the film is darkly comic throughout in a “should I really be laughing at this” kind of way. One scene in particular, in which Justine’s older sister, Alexia, tries to give her a Brazilian wax, quickly escalates from hilarity to jaw-dropping startle; just one of the film’s many highlights, which is sure to stick with audiences long afterwards.
If that wasn’t enough to sink your teeth into, another layer of intrigue can be found within Ducournau’s apparent interest in exploring the differences and similarities between humanity and animals. This takes shape through physical metaphors – a scene in which the first years are forced to crawl on hands and feet to a secret bar transforms the cast into dog-like creatures – and dialogue which outright discusses questions surrounding whether or not a chimpanzee would feel the same emotional trauma as a human if it were to be raped.
It’s dark stuff, but you can almost feel Ducournau’s wry smile somewhere in the background at all times. It is her direction, her writing, which just about steals the show from Marillier, and the future of this fresh and bold talent promises great things. Raw is cinema at its very best; challenging, entertaining and quite unlike anything I’ve seen in a long time. I’d be shocked if this wasn’t in my top five films of 2017 by the end of the year, and if this is just the director’s starter, I can’t wait to see what’s in store for the main course.
Image credit to http://www.impawards.com