Raw Review (Film, 2017) #31DaysofHorror
Content warning: Raw features scenes discussing and suggesting rape, as well as scenes of veterinary studies on living and dead animals.
I’m going to level with you. It takes a lot for me to want to tap out of a horror film. I grew up on the genre. The owners of the local VHS shop down the street loved my interest in the genre and would rent me horror films far beyond what I should have been watching in elementary school. My family firmly believed that it was okay as long as we talked about it. Their concern was that I knew how the films worked and that they were make believe. I was practically raised on slasher films and psychological horror I knew was scary even if I didn’t understand why.
Raw, a joint French-Belgian production from writer/director Julia Ducournau, is the first film I’ve encountered in years that thoroughly tested me. The violence is so unexpected, yet so ingrained in the story, that I really struggled to process everything happening onscreen. It’s not sexual violence, per se, but it is greatly related to female sexuality and a young woman’s story of coming of age. The violence is clinical and cold, essentially a cannibalistic twist on Marina de Van’s seminal New Extremism text In My Skin.
Justine is a new student at a veterinary school. She comes from a family of veterinarians and is excited to join the family line and study with her older sister. The elite school has a series of extreme hazing rituals that everyone turns a blind eye to, even when it causes harm to the students involved. Justine, a lifelong vegetarian, is forced to eat raw rabbit kidney, changing her life forever. Aside from developing a nasty, peeling rash all over her body, she becomes obsessed with eating flesh. It’s innocent at first—a stolen burger here, a sample of raw meat in her dorm fridge here—but quickly turns into a desire for human flesh. The freedom of college is transforming Justine, and while confidence is great, centering your life on an unnatural craving for human flesh is going to put a strain on your relationships, your health, and your sanity.
Raw is a lot by design. Ducournau has a clear voice in her own spin on lycanthropy as metaphor for sexual maturation and growth. While Justine is not turning into a literal werewolf, the sudden growth into human driven by physical contact and taste for flesh is a close parallel. The challenging element is the elimination of that safety net. The structure is actually quite similar to Ginger Snaps, but we don’t get the intentional distancing effect of a young woman physically transforming into the monster in her own story. Justine remains clearly human even as her desires become more of a hazard to herself and others.
The whole story is a mess of misplaced hormones and desire that turns growing up into a literal nightmare. Justine cannot escape the physical realities of life. Her roommate is not another woman but a self-proclaimed gay man, “the same thing to the school” as her roommate says. Justine becomes territorial like a cornered animal when confronted with the reality that she will have to not only share her space, but her relationship, with any new person who catches his interest.
The constant contact with other students during the hazing rituals puts her in more and more intimate situations. From the first prank of forcing the new students to abandon their beds (the beds are literally thrown out the windows) for an all night party to declaring slutty dress codes for classes, the older students want the younger students to know that they need to know how to interact with any other person or creature they come across. Justine, hesitant at first, starts to find a new identity through the constant partying and attention she gets from dressing up for a night out.
Then there’s the veterinary work. The school in Raw does not play around. The first year students wind up elbow deep in animals, living and dead, right at the start of their studies. They work shoulder to shoulder with faculty and other students to protect, cure, and study other living things that cannot speak for themselves. The metaphor for Justine’s story writes itself from there.
The transformation moment in Raw is the scene that made me want to just walk away. It’s filled with so many strange choices by the characters involved that come close to betraying all kinds of taboos. I was not expecting what happened at all. Ducournou successfully hides the real scare through a series of bizarre misdirections. Each moment in that scene winds up playing a far more pivotal role later on; the connection isn’t always literal, but it is the scene that sets up the theme, tone, and plot of the film. It’s shocking as a quick series of violent effects and yet utterly justified by the overall narrative.
I’m quite pleased with myself that I didn’t turn off Raw. It’s not very often that my limits are tested with horror and my commitment to the film meant grappling with one of the most beautiful, extreme, and thought provoking horror films I’ve ever seen. I’ll even take it a step further. This is probably the most intelligent, disturbing, and wildly unpredictable horror film I’ve seen since In My Skin helped launch the New Extremity back in 2002. If you can stomach realistic gore and want to be challenged, watch Raw. It’s a cinematic experience unlike any other.
Raw is currently streaming on Netflix.
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