Julia Ducournau’s debut feature film “Raw” provoked extreme reactions from the critics and audiences alike. Despite its grim story and graphic imagery, the film managed to gain an all-round 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 premise is not the immoral craving of another being’s flesh, but the film’s ghastly and disturbing setting.
Before “Raw”, Julia Ducournau only ever co-directed a TV movie, and written and directed a short film, also starring Garance Marillier and having a similar theme to “Raw”. Therefore, “Raw” makes her feature film debut, and what a directional debut it is. The film tells an effective, 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, and make them almost fantastical, for example, as in “Dead Ringers” (1988), Ducournau will expose provoking images unflinchingly, and let her viewers 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, by the end of the film, Ducournau’s audience will become almost immunised and “insensitivised” to the sight of blood on screen.
So, how graphic “Raw” really is? There is some blood, some bodily horror, some dead corpses about, but for the first truly uncomfortable scene, the audience will still need to wait at least forty minutes from the film’s beginning. 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 setting: the running 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 are forced to behave in a particular way, and most of the movie scenes, in their oppressive atmosphere, almost remind of those found in “Battle Royal” (2000) and the school setting there. 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 movie. 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 the movie.
Apart from creating a nauseating atmosphere, Julia Ducournau also made sure 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) and Aronofsky’s “Black Sawn” (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 an animal’s 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, perhaps, “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, on the second glance, the film is not as original as it may be presumed at first. Those familiar with the New French Extremity movement will find in “Raw” a familiar ground, 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” moves along, it begins to resemble one film in particular: Claire Denis’s “Trouble Every Day” (2001) – at least its main idea. That film was about two people: one trying to control his appetite for human meat, and another letting that craving wreck havoc. Surely, “Raw” is better thought-out and has more exciting twists than “Trouble Every Day”. However, “Trouble Every Day” is still superior in two important aspects – its drama is more unpredictable (maybe because it does not give 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 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. 8/10