It is a rare occasion when watching a film at the cinema to share your reactions so openly. It is rare indeed to hear loud declarations of squeamishness and repulsion during the screening, for neighbours to shield themselves from the screen so demonstrably and to look at you with similar disgust and incredulity. But watching Raw from French writer-director Julia Ducournau was one of those occasions. Like the poster that adorns the protagonist’s dorm room, declaring ‘What The Fuck?’, this phrase often summarised the vocal responses to the film as it progressed. Yet, without being needlessly gratuitous, Ducournau has infused Raw with a sharp feminist critique, the implications of which are as revelatory as the visuals sickening.
Justine (Garance Marillier), a vegan and virginal student enters her first year at veterinary school, which was attended formerly by her parents and now by her older sister Alex (Ella Rumpf). She is soon forced into the hi jinx but often humiliating hazing rituals: dorm riots , animal blood-splattered initiations and rabbit kidney-eating rites of passage. Yet, Justine struggles to let go of her inhibitions, concerning herself with her studies and finding refuge with her gay, sympathetic roommate Adrien (Rabah Nait Oufella). Under the pressures of her sister and the university culture, Justine begins to embrace her appetites which gradually grow to worrying excesses and have gut-wrenching results. To reveal much more would be to undermine Raw’s shocking audaciousness.
Without its significant subtext, Raw would just be obscene and almost pornographic with one explicit, revolting scene following another. Fortunately, Justine’s progression into cannibalism acts as a subversive criticism of a culture that treats women’s bodies as consumable commodities for male gratification, dictating their sexual awakening, a critique that is found in the works of feminist writers like Ariel Levy, Inga Muscio and Laurie Penny. The world of Raw also appears reminiscent of the Marquis de Sade’s nightmarish visions in his sadomasochistic novellas (from which Ducournau takes the name ‘Justine’ directly from de Sade’s 1791 novel). These themes of controlling female bodies and hedonistic consumption are fused with the notion of conformity, an aspect that Ducournau gives fascistic undertones (the chilling sight of the first-years crawling on all fours through the warehouse is just one potent image) and reminded me of Dennis Gansel’s 2008 The Wave.
‘Beauty is pain’ Alex tells Justine during an extremely intimate moment, but soon all the gendered rules that she is meant to conform to are sadistically subverted when she discovers her taste for human flesh. Listening to an Orties’ track, learning ‘Seduction 101’, while dancing in the mirror as practice for drawing her next meal and her hungry gaze at the university’s male football team inverts the usual leering male gaze of the female body. In this sense, her cannibalism is a metaphor for liberation, in gender and sexual terms, that attacks the patriarchal hegemony in that same uncomfortable way it seeks to exploit her, though hers is a literal consumption. In another sense, however, it is also represents an excess of a troubling hedonistic consumer culture that adheres to de Sade’s libertine philosophy. Libertinism decrees there should be no restraint of pleasure, sexual or otherwise- regardless of whether one loses oneself or harms others in that pursuit. While Justine is an extreme case, the student body is no less unrestrained or perverse with their paint-covered orgies, dances that involve eye-licking and parties in the morgue with the corpses out and filming on their camera-phones. Never has veterinary school looked so risqué but unappealing!
Justine remains sympathetic and identifiable with her recognisable insecurities belonging to nascent adulthood and her moral resolve, which Mariller sustains throughout her brilliant performance. With all the skin-scratching, finger-chewing and rabid biting she has to do, its no mean feat that she keeps us on-side. What could be viewed as a genetically deterministic conclusion, alluding to William Goldings’ Lord of the Flies and its Hobbesian philosophy, where society must repress our deepest nature to kill and eat each other, is tempered by an emphasis on Justine’s ability to choose what she does by the end. Rather than being radically vengeful or self-destructive like the female protagonists in Mitchell Litchenstein’s 2007 Teeth and Darren Aronofsky’s 2010 Black Swan who also show similar insecurities around sexuality and conformity in their respective films, Justine becomes more self-determined and aware after her harrowing journey. Despite the film’s intrusive intimacy, there is still sensitivity here, exemplified in one of the few quiet scenes when Justine is being examined by a nurse. There is also a touching and genuine connection between her and Rumpf, who plays the rivalrous but slighted older sibling. They have rapport, whether through exasperation when helping Justine with a dress or standing up and trying to piss together on the dormitory roof-top.
Otherwise, Ducournau holds nothing back in any other element. Whether its implied or explicitly sexualised dialogue to the pervasive soundscape of bodily noises (stripping, peeling, picking, etc) that is wince-inducing and stomach-churning. The backdrops’ autumnal grey and the university’s brutalist architecture only reinforces the vivid colour of the blood or fleshy body parts that Ducournau unflinchingly shows. Never has meat, whether human or otherwise, looked so disgusting and whether its vivisection or artificial insemination, Ducournau puts all these on the screen unreservedly. She seems to channel Kubrick in the suggestive, lurid lighting and the lusty, hungry camerawork that the film descends into in its sex-and-drugs parties. Ducournau is entirely aware of what she’s doing as she zooms in on Justine, lying legs akimbo on a table and observing ravenously, just as Kubrick zoomed away from A Clockwork Orange’s Alex at the Milk Bar, another famous male purveyor of sexual violence on-screen. Combined with Jim Williams’ darkly playful score, which has all the maniacal dread of composer Philip Glass, Raw becomes an overwhelming, skin-crawling experience.
If Raw can only be read by the viewer as one young woman’s emergent cannibalism, repressed by her parents’ veganism and is then let loose, then they miss the point entirely. Unremitting in its visuals, gore and underlying message, Raw provides an exploration into cannibalism, sexuality and femininity that is not only fresh, but has much to chew over.