A darling of the festival circuit throughout 2016, Julia Ducournau’s feature film debut has picked up critical acclaim and disgust in equal measure. Whilst the subject matter of burgeoning maturity, sexuality and cannibalism did not cause me to faint or vomit, it did leave a lasting impression and totally blindsided me with its black comedic undertones.
Raw follows Justine (Garance Marillier) as she arrives at veterinary school to join her older sister in following the family profession. She is a quiet young woman and vegetarian in accordance with her parents wishes. The film plays out during a week of mass hazing rituals by the ‘elder’ veterinary students to welcome the ‘newbies’ and it is during one of these that Justine is coerced into eating a raw rabbit kidney by her older, meat eating and rebellious sister, Alexia (Ella Rumpf). In coercing her younger sister to eat meat, she unwittingly sends Justine on a voyage of self-discovery.
Following the hazing, Justine develops a rash across her body which appears to be the catalyst for her developing an insatiable taste for meat. She even persuades her gay roommate Adrien (Rabah Nait Oufella) to join her off campus, like a dirty secret, so she can indulge her need for a kebab. Justine’s relationship with Adrien is one of the key elements in the film because in correlation with her desire for flesh, she also becomes more sexually aggressive. Whilst she tries to divert her attention away from her attractive roommate, she is seen prowling dorm parties in a drunken state and in one scene a closet fumble with another ‘newbie’ leaves a bitter aftertaste for him.
As Justine becomes more socially and sexually aware, she starts to encroach on her sister’s social standing and a dangerous rivalry starts to develop whereby Justine appears to become a plaything for her sociopathic older sister. This leads to some of the films more shocking moments and one in particular, involving a party in a morgue is not easily forgotten. This rivalry is palpable from early on and imbues the film with a sense of dread throughout and the viewer is never sure who is safe, including the protagonist. Ducournau is both director and writer and she delivers a very assured script which is barbed with feminist commentary and observations on hazing rituals by millennial, self-entitled ‘elders’ who are nothing more than bullies. It is also shot through with jet black humour, something which I did not expect and it acts as a necessary juxtaposition to the narrative that unfolds.
Whilst Raw is undoubtedly one of the best horror films of 2016, it is not without its flaws. It reminded me a lot of Refn’s The Neon Demon during its scenes of cannibalism and initiation, plus several scenes are beautifully shot but like a petulant teenager, at times it tries too hard to shock. However, Marillier is excellent in the central role and Rumpf as her sister/nemesis matches her bite for bite. Ducournau’s feature debut should be considered alongside other iconic French horrors such Inside and Frontier(s) and it deserves mainstream success when released on UK shores in 2017.