Growing up is difficult for most. Learning who you are, what influences you, and nurture versus nature all factor in developing as a human being. When family secrets and dysfunction come into play, the “coming of age” process becomes much more complicated. Julia Ducournau’s film Raw takes these factors with a female perspective, creating a clever blend of genre film and a female-driven narrative mixed with genuinely human moments. This past weekend, I finally got to see this buzzed about film presented by VICE’s Krista Dzialoszynski at the Royal Cinema. I was eager to see exactly what caused some audience members to become ill at TIFF 2016 and other film festivals because of the graphic content, and I wasn’t disappointed.
Justine (Garance Marillier) is a young woman entering her first year of veterinarian school. She is nervous about this next step in her life, but her older sister, Alex (Ella Rumpf), is a student at the same school, and she shows Justine the ropes as the first-year students endure rigorous and brutal hazing. She also has the help of her homosexual roommate Adrien (Rabah Nait Oufella), whom she grows attracted to.
Justine is thrown for a loop when she is forced to eat a rabbit’s kidney during a hazing activity. She and her family are vegetarian, so this test changes her whole world with just one swallow. Horrible rashes, painful hunger, and a hankering for meat plague her after eating the dreaded animal part, making her already difficult adjustment to college life, coping with being an above-average student, and her blossoming adulthood even more trying. A freak accident with her sister pushes her over the blood lust threshold with cannibalistic tendencies, and the discovery of her sister’s secret becomes more than she can bear. Justine must struggle with her newfound affliction, inability to fit in, and intense sibling rivalry steeped in secrets.
The discussion after the screening with Dzialoszynski and Alexandra West, author of Films of the New French Extremity: Visceral Horror and National Identity and co-host of the Faculty of Horror podcast, touched on female themes such as loss of virginity, menstruation, and the sterilization of all aspects of being a girl and woman in society and film. They applauded Ducournau for showing a coming of age story from a distinctly female perspective. Instead of the “male gaze” of a siren or chaste mother figure, they noted how Ducournau breaks the mold with Justine and her gruesome ordeal, using literal representations of the blood and guts of growing pains. Both Dzialoszynski and West felt that now is the time to show different stories in the genre film scene, and they had high hopes that female and other perspectives outside of the white, male scope will soon become more than a passing fad.
Along with the female rites of passage Dzialoszynski and West discussed, my favorite theme was family dysfunction. Justine and Alex’s family dynamic is established with ease and with very little information in the film. We gather that there is some coddling from their mother, resignation from their father, and a sibling rivalry that becomes increasingly toxic as the sisters blackmail each other with their secrets. This aspect made Justine’s affliction somehow all at once bizarre and relatable. The normalcy of worried parents, cutting the aprons strings, and vindictive siblings while dealing with being different isn’t hard to believe even though it’s presented in such an extreme way.
Justine’s meat cravings coincide with her sexual maturation as she is free to explore new feelings and experience new things. Her suppressed personality and naivety about the world around her is challenged, especially with her feelings for the out of reach Adrien, and she is forced to confront things outside of her control. Marillier does a stellar job portraying Justine’s uncertainty with this dilemma, as she toils with blazing her own trail, giving in to her animalistic urges, and try to fit into this barely civilized student world. It’s a predicament that many young women face shown in an unusual light. The chemistry between Rumpf and Marillier was also fantastic, creating a believable and twisted bond.
I was surprised by how funny Raw was. Moments that were genuinely human, absurd, and silly, like the sisterly act of Alex helping Justine wax her bikini line (with disastrous and life-changing results) or morbid advice from a fellow student with an eating disorder about vomiting techniques were clever and captured the ordeals and pressures of being a young woman without cheap laughs. Ducournau’s skill at integrating these moments seamlessly with horror elements and gore puts her film in equal standing with the classic female coming of age horrors and makes me want to see what else she has to offer.
I also enjoyed the scoring and soundtrack that revolved between electronic music and modern baroque arrangements of organs, harpsichord, and strings for the film’s theme song. Once you hear the chords’ repetition, it creates a sweet, almost gut-rot tension that stays with you. It’s no wonder since the composer Jim Williams has made tension building music for Ben Wheatley’s Kill List and Sightseers, two very different but equally twisted films. You’ll also notice the gorgeous cinematography by Ruben Impens. His use of color, shadow, and slow-motion was striking, giving a dream-like quality to scenes and contrast to the drab backdrop of daily occurrences as a student.
I’m still unsure why people were fainting during previous screenings, but then again, I’m a horror hound and not easily fazed. In fact, I think it just shows how magnificent the makeup FX team was in this film. While there are some disturbing animal dissection scenes for those who are sensitive or vegetarian (like me), see Raw because of its many layers, as well as the gore and its depiction of the messiness of a young, awkward woman’s life that for once isn’t sterilized for mass consumption.
(Edited from an original post published in May 2017 on Rosemary’s Pixie.)