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March 24, 2017

It feels like it’s been a long time since we’ve had a horror film as brutal, as unflinching, and, well, as raw as Raw. The feature debut of Fémis grad Julia Ducournau shows a confident, capable hand as the director guides us down her lead’s path into madness. But while it’s a must-see for fans of cinematic gore, there’s frustratingly little to be learned from the journey, once the obvious metaphor is out of the way.

Justine (Garance Marillier) arrives at her veterinary college as a lifelong vegetarian, obediently following her mother’s wishes. Her parents are alumni of the same school, even meeting in their first year as students. And her older sister, Alexia (Ella Rumpf), is also a student, despite her brash, independent streak.

At first, veterinary medicine seems a natural fit for an animal-loving vegetarian like Justine, but it gets complicated from there. As with med students, vets in training must inure themselves to the messy realities of their job. And at this school, isolated in the middle of the countryside, that starts with a week of hazing. This covers the usual ritual humiliations — deference to “elders”, enforced costumes, heavy drinking — but also includes stunts like a class photo taken after drenching the new students in blood.

Justine has always been the star pupil. An introverted and nerdy teacher’s pet, she has little enough patience for these ordeals, but she particularly objects to eating a raw rabbit kidney. Alexia demands that she eat it anyway, dietary restrictions be damned, and all but mashes Justine’s jaws up and down by hand. Justine’s misgivings seem to be validated when she breaks out in a terrible rash, but that’s only the beginning.

She begins to feel a hunger, and a desire for meat. First it’s a beef patty she tries sneaking out of the cafeteria. Then her gay suitemate, Adrien (Rabah Naït Oufella), helps her get a shawarma from a truck stop down the highway from the school. Then it’s an early-morning raid of their refrigerator, which finds her on her knees, rapturously devouring a raw chicken breast. Soon enough she finds what it is she truly craves: human flesh.

It’s no coincidence that Justine also arrives at school a virgin. A common justification for policing young women’s sexuality is that otherwise their lust will become an uncontrollable force. Women who enjoyed sex were, and still colloquially are, stigmatized as “nymphomaniacs” whose desire constitutes mental illness. In Justine, Ducournau shows this old male fear of the powerful, uncontrolled female libido.

But she’s not only out of male control, but out of her own control as well. This isn’t Jennifer’s Body or Teeth, where the avatar of female lust serves as a vessel of righteous, if maybe excessive, vengeance. In highlighting the fear of feminine appetite, Raw seems to justify that same fear.

To some extent, this is the result of another choice on Ducournau’s part. Like any power, Justine’s bloodlust needs to be controlled and used responsibly. And as it becomes clear that Alexia knows more about what Justine is experiencing than she lets on, it becomes just as clear that she abdicates her duty to act as her sister’s mentor. And so the film comments on how women are complicit in women’s strife, valuing the security of their place in the patriarchy — the upperclass hazing leaders are almost universally men — above solidarity with each other.

But to do this it has to abandon all but the most superficial communication between the two young women. In general, Marillier and Rumpf give an excellent picture of the often fraught relationship between two sisters, especially one where the mother seems to have a clear favorite. And yet, even during their moments of detente, Justine never asks about the subject which has come to dominate her life, and about which Alexia clearly has some insight.

That omission carries over into other conveniences in the plot, like the quasi-adversarial relationship between Alexia and Adrien, or Adrien’s sudden willingness to help meet Justine’s sexual needs. As the taboo between the sisters advances a desired theme, each for these developments is necessary to get the plot to end up where Ducournau wants it, but they feel haphazardly motivated on their own terms.

Still, despite the undercooked allegory, Raw offers plenty of visceral thrills for genre fans. From the get-go, a veterinary school is a creepy setting, and even the normal students have sense of humor that would land somewhere between dark and depraved among the rest of society. And seeing animals — alive and dead — in this context can be deeply unsettling. Ducournau uses this to great effect in ratcheting up the near-hallucinatory dysphoria over the course of the film, and her use of gore effects is fantastic for this early in her career.

This is clearly a director who knows exactly how and when to shock and provoke her audience, and horror aficionados should absolutely check this one out. I have no doubt that she will hone her writing to provide more incisive commentary in her future efforts; even if Raw bites off more than she can chew, Julia Ducournau is one to watch.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: pass.

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