The stylishly grisly Raw is a French body-horror movie written and directed by the promising new filmmaker Julia Ducournau. Garance Marillier stars as a college student named Justine, beginning her first year at the veterinary school both her parents attended and where her older sister (Ella Rumpf) is an upperclassmen. Justine is a lifelong vegetarian, from a family of lifelong vegetarians, but soon after arriving at the school she begins experiencing an unexplainable desire to consume raw meat, and eventually, human flesh. This odd compulsion seems somehow tied to the virginal Justine’s sexual awakening and the concurrent changes in her relationship with her sister. Thus Raw (or its French title Grave) can be described as a Cronenbergian cannibalistic coming-of-age picture and should prove fulfilling to all who would be lured in by that simple alliterative descriptor. Like the Canadian auteur—who virtually created the subgenre of body-horror with films like Shivers, The Brood, Videodrome, and The Fly—Ducournau has a knack for tapping into the fears we all have around the mysteries of bodily function. She also has a similarly keen eye for using physical structures to create ominous moods and unsettling atmosphere.
In addition to all the Cronenberg classics, the film recalls Claire Denis’s Trouble Every Day, Brian De Palma’s Carrie, Peter Greenaway’s A Zed & Two Noughts, and the Canadian cult favorite Ginger Snaps without feeling too derivative or indulging in simplistic homage. Ducournau knows how to induce visceral reactions in an audience, and those hungry for extreme, gross-out sequences of shock and cringe will not be disappointed. But as a screenwriter, Ducournau is still a little…well… raw. In expanding her 2011 short film Junior, she’s not developed a narrative substantial enough to support a feature length running time. She gives prominence to subtext and allegory without creating enough plotlines on which to hang it all.
A quasi-Lynchian or Argentonian dream-logic permeates Raw, which keeps us from asking too many questions about story logic and character motivations, at least for a while. Considering how extreme she paints the world of this movie right from the start, it’s amazing Ducournau can maintain such a high level of tension and disturbing sensation for as long as she does. The vet school is depicted as an industrial agriculture factory of cruelty, where unfeeling teens dissect dogs, cows, horses, and each other’s emotions. The level of hazing the freshmen undergo is as radical and bizarre as is the overt lack of adult supervision at the institution. Watching the students show up to classes in their blood-soaked lab coats, we get the feeling this is an asylum run by the inmates, but I’m not sure exactly how this idea serves the film on any level other than to be generally confusing or unsettling.
Neither the mystery nor the shock value of Raw can sustain itself all the way through to the end. In fact, by the time Ducournau gets to the climax, she’s already well past the point where viewers become numb to the heightening of imagery and incident. And the final scene seems to negate the opening scene in a deeply unsatisfying way. But I still recommend Raw to horror fans, because despite its major shortcomings, it delivers on what it promises. It also heralds the arrival of several exciting new talents. Not just Ducournau, but also her lead actors Garance Marillier (who played Justine in the short, Junior) and the mesmerizing Ella Rumpf. The screen presence of these two young actresses keeps us engaged with the movie despite its diminishing returns. I have no doubt we will see even more impressive work from all three of these women in the near future.