Writer-director Julia Ducournau has delivered one of the most cinematically audacious debut features of the 2010s with Raw; a stone-cold instant classic, which is both bracingly intelligent, and radically creative. Feverish in its intensity, pertinent in its philosophy, this is a film which underpins the complexities of young adulthood with meteoric precision, and yet is still able to comfortably nestle into the horror framework; bettering the vast majority of genre entries in recent years.
This succulent feature follows Justine (Garance Marillier), the youngest daughter of a strict vegetarian family, who has maintained a meat-free diet since day one. Following in the footsteps of her elder sister and parents respectively, she heads off for her first year at a prestigious veterinary college; a place of big possibilities, and most importantly, independence. However the institution – in which sister Alexia (Ella Rumpf) is already studying – serves up more than she initially bargained for when her fellow freshers become embezzled in a fierce hazing ritual; an annual onslaught of degradation and indignity, which all newbies face as per school tradition. One of the “activities” enforced causes Justine to consume a raw animal organ, but once ingested, she finds her body and mind reacts in an alarming manner, and soon develops an insatiable hunger for all kinds of flesh…
Across the pulsating 95 minute runtime, Ducournau establishes her authorial voice with magnetising confidence. Her screenplay beautifully juxtaposes our expectations of the coming-of-age narrative, by seamlessly blurring the surrounding lines. Raw channels equal parts black comedy, spiky social commentary, and wince-inducing terror, with scalpel-like precision, thanks to such fantastically realised characterisation, and spot-on metaphorical beats, as Justine begins to understand her true calling and identity: a subtle twist on the girl-to-womenhood development.
There have been plentiful musings about international screenings of the film, and the reactions they has mustered. Reports of people fainting, vomiting, and ceremonial walkouts, have followed its festival campaign just as much as the wholeheartedly deserved acclaim. Now let’s get one thing straight: Raw is not for everyone. Its arresting and distressing portrait of college hazing serves up a handful of unpleasant scenes, but perhaps not in the manner you’d presume. Ducournau’s film – much like its lead protagonist – has an extremely primal approach to confrontational imagery. College parties are captured with a ferocious hedonism; thunderous music, strobe lighting, drug consumption, and sexual promiscuity vibrate maniacally through frame, whilst animal surgeries are forensic in their emotion; blade goes in, guts come out. There’s no time for attachment or sympathy.
However, the themes of cannibalism – which is what viewers will likely presume serve up the goriest moments – are actually handled with a beguiling sense of sincerity. Justine’s transition from vegetarian to meat-eater is as delicate as her alteration from precious, and virginal, to aggressive, and wilful. Neither Ducournau’s exemplary script, or her frenetic camera, takes Marillier’s hero for granted, and never does either degrade her values or outlooks based upon any narrative developments. Raw has been dubbed by some as a “feminist cannibal movie”, and there is much truth in such a statement. Justine is first a woman, second a student, and third a belly-rumbling savage; not the other way around.
To comment further on the direction, it is so remarkably assured, and thematically knowledgable in its intent, and yet so excitable and youthful in its execution. We’ve seen a number of extremely impressive horror debuts in recent years; namely Nicolas Pesce’s agonising The Eyes of My Mother, or Robert Eggers’ insidious The Witch, but Ducournau has surged in right off the bat with undeniable vision and explosive dominance. Her camera whips through set-pieces with reflective breathlessness to Justine, as she navigates a landscape of psychological torment and trauma, before slowing down and becoming deeply intrusive, as her lens invades intimate space and sequences. Without spoiling anything, a couple of moments where Justine is at her most vulnerable (or itchy, depending on your point of view…), are so nauseatingly close, you might feel a cold hand upon the nape, or a bead of sweat upon the brow.
Marillier’s central performance is nothing short of phenomenal. She occupies virtually every frame, rendering a uniquely realised ingénue, who’ll soon ascend into a wallowing abyss of angst and unease. The doe-eyed bewilderment is played exquisitely – so well in fact you’ll never believe such a monster could dwell within – but once the lid is flung from the boiling pot, you’ll be stunned you never spotted the animalistic fury clawing away at that delicate façade. She, like her director, enters the fold with command, integrity, and bravery. Supporting work from Rumpf, and Rabah Nait Oufella as Justine’s openly-gay roommate, Adrien, are also fantastic: both performances so full of colour, body, and texture.
Visceral and fearless – both in form and virtue – Raw is pièce de résistance filmmaking. An extraordinary work, which takes zero prisoners, and accepts no simple route. It is fantastically thrilling, unashamedly acidic, and disarmingly perceptive. Let it sink those brilliant teeth in, and you’ll reap copious rewards.
Raw surges into UK cinemas on 7th April.