Raw has in it the most terrifying scene you will see in 2017. A disturbing vignette in which shots disorientate, the soundtrack sickens and everything captured in the camera’s frame represent a threat. Three words can describe the sequence and each one will indeed send a chill to the very root of your spine; be warned, they may even put you off from daring to enter your local screening at all: student house party. The nightmare is real and were these deafening drunken exploits not horrifying enough, the plot cascading around them concerns cannibalism. This is certainly an experience offering much to get your teeth into. Ahem.
The film has been bubbling in the back of its director Julia Ducournau’s mind for some time. So long in fact that its star, the 19 year-old Garance Marillier, was at first rebuffed from the project for being too young for the role. Quite what such long-term cannibalistic malingering will do to the human imagination can only be guessed at, but its result is an excellent piece of cinema that is at once both gleefully gory and satisfyingly mature.
Now old enough, and the perfect fit as it goes, Marillier plays Justine in the film, a youth at the epochal stage of adolescence who is leaving home and going into college. Having been brought up a stringent vegetarian, Justine now intends to find her way at the veterinary school at which her elder sister (Ella Rumpf) is already a student. Whereas most frat inaugurations tend to include a beverage containing indecent levels of vodka, Justine is reasonably put off by the raw chunk of rabbit kidney she finds herself presented with in this case. Goes well with fava beans and chianti apparently. Through Justine’s reluctance, her sister’s presence makes for little comfort, insisting that she cannot ‘start the year by chickening out’. Hinting at one of Raw’s strongest themes, it is an awareness of the need to ‘fit in’ socially that drives Justine to eventual compliance. Whereas the more typical inauguration will generally result in a blinder of a hangover the following morning, for Justine the endurance leaves her scratching at her own skin and, before long, with a rampant yearning for more raw meat.
Chances are, if you’ve heard anything of Raw ahead of its release it’ll be the tales of fainting and regurgitation that seem to have preceded it ever since emergency services were reportedly called to the film’s screening at last year’s Toronto Film Festival. Whilst, to my stomach at least, the film never quite justifies so strong a reaction, what follows does certainly inspire much by way of wince-inducement. That said, in Ducournau’s hands, Raw feels to be a much more intelligent fare than the pre-hype might have suggested. Yes, absolutely, watch out for cinema’s best ‘pull-back-the-sheet’ scene since The Godfather, but also be prepared for a deft insight into some equally harrowing real life issues. ‘Beauty is pain’ as the film informs us. An off the cuff ‘you better not be anorexic’ feels flippant, but in the context of Justine’s psychological torment literally seeing her eat away at her own flesh, the implications of ‘fitting in’ become all the more on point.
Marking Ducournau’s first stab at feature-length directing, Raw sees the thirty-three year old deal out a promisingly assured debut and one surprisingly self-aware. In the initial stages of the film, Ducournau taking credit for the screenplay too, knowing hints are made towards what is to come – Justine’s flesh-pink suitcase or the moment the family Labrador salivates on her face for instance. Even in the script’s transition from shades of disquiet to more prominently dark and unsettling tones, a biting sense of humour prevails whilst presenting genuine depths of compassion.
Twice Justine is told that ‘It’s your life’ but, as the film demonstrates, would that it were so simple. Perhaps it’s all a metaphor. Maybe Justine’s transformations, and their inevitable ramifications, are closer to home than they at first may seem, representing a parodic reminder of the importance to be true to yourself. Alternatively, with references to Hitchcock’s Psycho and killer last line, Raw may simply be just a terrifically chilling entry into the canon of French horror – in which case, let them eat steak! Either way, I loved it.