Let’s start this review by separating the hype from the substance. A recent article by “The Hollywood Reporter” revealed several patrons at a Los Angeles movie theater who saw Raw had “fainted, while at least one person vomited.” The theater then decided to hand out barf bags to patrons who bought tickets to see the movie. This rides buzz of other people fainting and vomiting during the French movie’s festival run. This kind of hype is a disservice for such a smart, compelling — though slightly flawed — movie by first-time feature filmmaker Julia Ducournau.
The writer-director has harnessed the powers of the cinematic medium to vividly tell a powerful story about first-time experiences and how a lack of preparedness only heightens the passion of those experiences while creating divisions among loved ones. For instance, take the shame of sex for Christians who profess abstinence. For some, that which is forbidden only heightens the experience. With that in mind, meet Justine (Garance Marillier, making her debut feature appearance), a virgin raised vegetarian who has never once tasted meat. She’s a teenager just starting veterinary school — a family tradition. Her parents went there, and her older sister Alex (Ella Rumpf) is already deep in her studies there.
Justine wakes up quick from her sheltered world during the school’s ruthless initiation rituals that come at unexpected moments, like when she’s trying to get some sleep. She and fellow freshmen are startled from their beds by senior classmen with mattresses tossed out their windows. In a surreal sequence, the seniors herd the underclassmen through the shadowy nooks of the school’s industrial building, sometimes through low spaces that forces them on their hands and knees and through a room that offers glimpses of mutant animals in jars that foreshadow Justine’s transformation to a carnivore, who starts to develop a taste for human flesh. The compulsion seems to be triggered by another initiation ritual where she must consume a raw bit of rabbit kidney. Thus begins her journey with the flesh, which begins with an extreme rash that forces her to shed her skin.
Though the film features some visceral scenes where the camera lingers on wounds and raw meat, enhanced by brilliant colors that sometimes clash from frame-to-frame, like a rather vicious Wes Anderson movie, there’s a sensitivity to the film. Marillier brings a soulful performance to this sometimes hyper-stylized movie. Justine’s confusion and desire is a mix of hesitation and compulsion. She seems both repulsed and drawn in at once by her first taste of meat and soon, human flesh. It’s as much about aberrant behavior as it is about the excitement of feeling something for the first time that we all can relate with. Ducournau grants Justine some nice moments alone with meat where Marillier can indulge in a conflicted performance that is both startling and seductive. Ducournau is playing on a razor’s edge that will divide audiences, and it’s this tension that makes the film feel troubling (and may cause those few with weaker constitutions to pass out).
There’s humor in this film, but it’s also disturbing in the deep, human way that implicates us all. It’ll make one concerned for Justine while feeling repulsed by her actions, as we observe this young woman discover a new side of herself. Like one’s own early sexual experiences, be it auto-erotic orgasm or first experiences with a partner, Raw captures the insecurity of early sexual identity and loneliness with the skill of sex and makes it a visceral metaphor that implicates those outside of those connections: family.
Enhancing it all is Ducournau’s go-for-broke filmmaking style. Sound and music design are extreme in their awareness to shake viewers to their primal core, from exaggerated musical sting moments, to prolonged musical sequences featuring such varied instrumentation as cheesy harpsichord melodies representing inner, traumatic realizations to a pounding industrial score that involves a way too long knot of hair that Justine struggles to pull out through her esophagus. Extremely contrasting colors, sometimes clashing in the same frame, other times alternating between scenes, occasionally featuring pretty framing recalls Anderson by way of Cronenberg, the master of the flesh. Meat in the film is often heightened with a surreal brilliance, from the pink of raw chicken to the scarlet of blood. Ducournau also relies on handheld camera work that makes for a more intimate and uncomfortable experience.
The reason I called the film “slightly flawed” comes to the film’s conclusion, when Ducournau tries to rationalize the behavior with a shocking reveal about Justine’s family. The primal themes of this film are compromised by an urge to over explain. It’s similar to who director Richard Kelly cane seem so frustrating. That said, the final shocker of an ending does nothing compared to the slow burn revelations of the gradual ride of self-realization that comprises much of the film. It’s the process of discovery that is most exciting but also terrifying when you’re alone in it.
Raw runs 99 minutes, is in French with English subtitles and is rate R. It will open exclusively in Miami at O Cinema Wynwood, this Friday, April 21. For screenings in other parts of the U.S., visit this link. Focus Features provided a screener link for the purpose of this review.