“Raw” Review

raw posterRaw [2016] – ★★★★

🥩 A staggering film debut with “unflinching” gore and disturbing atmosphere, reviving the best of what became known as the New French Extremity movement.

Julia Ducournau’s debut feature film Raw provoked extreme reactions from critics and audiences alike. However, despite its grim story and graphic imagery, the film still managed to gain its critical acclaim. Raw is a French-language film about an adolescent girl Justine (Garance Marillier) who enters her first year at a veterinary school in France. There, Justine joins her older sister Alexia (Ella Rumpf), and soon realises that the life of first-year students at the school is not an easy ride, and her recently-acquired (and initially forced) passion for raw meat is the cause for major concern. Realistic in its presentation, the film is known for its graphic scenes of cannibalism, but, ironically, its most shocking element is not the immoral craving of another human’s flesh, but the film’s ghastly and disturbing setting.

Before Raw, Julia Ducournau only co-directed a TV movie, and written and directed a short film, also starring Garance Marillier and having a similar theme to Raw. This makes Raw her first feature film debut, and what a directional debut it is! The film tells a vivid story of a teenager slowing losing her senses. Ducournau seems to instinctively know how to present the most disturbing images in the most realistic, intriguing and thought-provoking way. She starts from the idea that human blood is human blood, and that dead bodies are dead bodies, and that there is no use camouflaging or hiding basic human anatomy. In that vein, Ducournau’s realism becomes the distinctive feature of her work and her trademark. Unlike David Cronenberg who will toy with graphic imagery on screen, making them almost fantastical, Ducournau will expose provoking images unflinchingly, inviting her viewers to partake in their simple presentation, as though such images are the commonest of sights on Earth, and really are an everyday occurrence. To that effect and by the end of the film, Ducournau’s audience may become almost immunised and “insensitivised to the sight of blood on screen.

So, how graphic Raw is? There is some blood, some bodily horror, some dead corpses about, but for the first truly uncomfortable scene, the audience will still have to wait at least forty minutes. And, even here, it is not the content as such which is so powerful, but the way it is presented, with the “courageous” camera-work and disturbing music in the background. Every other scene in the film is definitely designed to shock in one way or another, but, in all honesty, the most shocking element in the film is its disturbing setting: the organisation of Justine’s veterinary school, and even Justine’s close family. Even if it is clear that Justine’s veterinary school and its initiation ritual for first year students were modelled on an actual veterinary school and actual sessions conducted there, the school’s organisation, and especially its seeming state of anarchy in Raw, are still quite horrifying. Justine and other first-year students in the film are treated like cattle that is forced to behave in a particular way, and most of the scenes, the oppressive atmosphere even reminds of that found in highly-disturbing Battle Royal (2000). The veterinary school’s systematic bullying is just the tip of an iceberg; and to see crawling first years cattled together to be hazed, subordinating themselves to the will of the “elders”, is like viewing something straight out of “concentration camp” scenes in a Polanski film. Amidst the students’ hedonistic lifestyles, the story proceeds as though the outside world does not exist, and school professors are more than fine to observe their students covered in blood from head to toe on a daily basis. On top of that, every adult in the film is interrogating, heartless or downright menacing. Justine’s father becomes unsympathetic to Justine, telling her “not to have two girls [in future]”; Justine’s professor implies at one point that he will take pleasure in her academic downfall; and even Justine’s older sister Alexia becomes Justine’s nemesis. All this may give more chills than any cannibalistic references in this story.

raw coming of age

Apart from creating a nauseating atmosphere, Julia Ducournau ensures that her main heroine Justine completes her journey to the darker side of life, and Justine’s transformation from total ignorance and innocence to distorted intelligence and barbarism is vivid and powerful. In that way, Justine is similar to the heroines of Polanski’s Repulsion (1965) or Aronofsky’s Black Swan (2010): she stars as this representation of physical and mental innocence, and it takes only so little (or so much) for her to be introduced to the darker sides of humanity and get transformed into something more sinister. In Raw, Justine stars as an idealistic vegetarian and an academically-bright student who favours animal rights. By the end of the film, she leaves behind her school’s conformity to emerge as a cynical individual who will not move a muscle as she coolly inspects and then dissects animal corpse. In terms of sexuality, Justine is at first taken aback by her roommate’s casual sex-sessions in their dormitory, but her own sexually-deviant fixations soon emerge, and the audience later has little choice but to mentally and emotionally distance themselves from Justine and her actions. In terms of a character study and journey, Raw is everything that the audience wanted to see in Refn’s The Neon Demon (2016), but which, sadly, never materialised, especially that fascinating transition from an average into an extraordinary, or from a victim into a predator.

Although Raw is filled with terrifying, sometimes unexpected, turns, especially towards the film’s end, the film is not actually as original as it may be presumed. Those familiar with the New French Extremity movement will see in Raw many familiar-to-them components, and the film pays more than a tribute to some of the films made in the period between 1999 and 2003 in France. Moreover, as Raw progresses, it begins to resemble one film in particular: Claire Denis’s Trouble Every Day (2001) – at least its main idea. That film is about two people: one trying to control his appetite for human meat, and another letting that craving wreck havoc. Surely, Raw is slightly better thought-out and has a number of more exciting twists than Trouble Every Day, but that film is also superior of the two in other important aspects – its drama is more unpredictable (maybe because it does not give away too much information unlike Raw), and it gives off that deeper inner sensuality and mystery, which Raw simply does not have.

Raw is a brave and unflinching portrayal of a coming-of-age story where a teenager discovers and then battles her shocking obsession. Ducournau wraps her story with enough visual realism to make individual scenes both uncomfortable and fascinating to watch. The oppressive and grim atmosphere of the film and its unexpected twists contribute to the film’s being so engrossing, even if the story overall maybe a tad too predictable. 


8 Comments Add yours

  1. joliesattic says:

    Thanks for the review. I’ll be skipping this. I’m kinda squeamish. LOL

    Liked by 1 person

  2. vinnieh says:

    Sounds like some real food for thought.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. dbmoviesblog says:

      It is. I was taken more by the the school’s almost dystopian environment in the film, rather than by all the cannibalism. And, of course, it is always great to see a film which can finish on a strong note or on a twist – this one does.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. vinnieh says:

        Environment is crucial in a horror movie. You can do so much when the setting is one you can take advantage of.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. dbmoviesblog says:

          This is so true, especially when the “threat/evil” in a horror film is something subtle, unknown – inside people, or thinly-clothed/camouflaged as something else, than, I think, the environment is, actually, almost everything in that movie.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. vinnieh says:

            Yes, something insidious and not obvious really gives me the creeps. It’s the threat of the unknown that really gets to me.

            Liked by 1 person

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