Fantastic Fest 2016: RAW is Finger-Licking Good

by Brendan Foley

Raw is a film about consuming flesh that is itself consumed by awe and horror for this meat we inhabit for a short while. Written and directed by newcomer Julia Ducournau, the French horror/dark comedy Raw is that rare film that defies almost any classification. While it may be said to fit into the “cannibal” subgenre, that doesn’t begin to capture the tonal juggling act, emotional landscape and, well, raw impact of the film itself.

Garance Marillier is our star for this outing, and her performance here is the kind of extraordinary achievement that can only happen when a performer truly gives themselves over to a director. Marillier plays Justine, a sheltered young vegetarian who as the movie opens is being sent off to the prestigious veterinary school where her sister is already an upperclassman. Alexia (Ella Rumpf) has changed since leaving the crushing authority of the girls’ mother, blossoming into a young adult of unchecked hedonism, and in the early goings she pressures her sister to explore sensation as freely as she does.

A big checkpoint on that particular list? Eating meat for the first time.

But after taking her first bite, Justine begins undergoing changes she can neither understand nor control, and a strange hunger begins threatening to consume her. In a short while it becomes clear (in a sequence so carefully pitched between horrifying and hysterical that it leaves me convinced Ducournau is an actual genius at this) that a specific meat is required to sate Justine’s hunger.

Here’s the best praise I can give to Raw: even if it hadn’t escalated into Donner Party territory, this film would still be well worth the watch. Ducournau (who also wrote) has a confidence behind the camera that suggests a filmmaker with a dozen more features under their belt instead of a debut, and her script zones in on the kinds of petty humiliations and triumphs that color the moment when you step out of the shadows of your parents and siblings and begin to realize what kind of person you are/want to be. There’s one miraculous tracking shot that follows Justine through a packed house party, capturing her reactions as they flit between confusion, excitement, and frustration.

When the film does commit to genre, it commits. Ducournau has a blunt eye for the gore, and she’s not afraid to point her camera square at a mutilation and let it linger. The red of shredded skin serves as an exclamation point to the film’s muted palette, highlighting those moments when desire and instinct escape past Justine’s defenses. I’ve seen plenty of cannibalism in movies before, but I don’t know if I’ve ever seen it done with quite this punch.

One thing I do know: Raw could only be the product of a female filmmaker. And it’s not just in the way that Ducournau shoots the female form (although there is quite a lot of skin in the film, it never feels exploitative or drooling) or finds physical illustration of desire (although this is a movie of explosive sexuality [so much so that I wouldn’t be surprised if this is the sticking point for the MPAA while the flesh-ripping goes unremarked upon]), but is ground into the text of the film itself.

Because Ducournau knows she doesn’t have to wallow in visual ugliness to portray a hostile and unfriendly world like she’s Rob Zombie or somebody. It’s an unfriendly world to women even when they aren’t grappling with an awakening desire to maw on long pork, and Justine rapidly discovers the million little hostilities that are sicced on her just for existing. There’s the elderly (male) professor that gives her shit because a GUY cheated off of HER and the professor thinks an over-achieving woman will drive people out of the school. There’s the (female) doctor who rolls her eyes at Justine’s complaints, at her claims to virginity, then can’t explain why a woman wouldn’t have sought help for a humiliating experience. For the first time, Justine is experiencing the world without the protective barrier of her parents (one question: was the idea that she had been home-schooled up until this moment? Or is this just a nuance of the French school system that I’m not aware of?) and each successive unfriendly face challenges her more to decide how she will define herself.

And that’s truly what Raw is about beneath the genre trappings: the moment you discover what the world is and decide how you are going to face it. Justine spends the movie out of control, and once she stakes her claim the movie wraps up quick. While I will not discuss the film’s second half (save to say that it has perhaps the best punchline to a horror film since The Invitation), Raw‘s mic drop of a closer brings these themes of power and identity to a powerful head. In telling a coming of age story through cannibalism, Ducournau made well-trodden material immediate and fresh, making the emotional visceral in a way that you will not soon forget.

There’s a lot more to unpack about the film that should wait until it gets a wider release, and I can’t wait to really dig into it once you folks have had a look. Raw will not be to all tastes (natch), but for the right audience it’s an absolute must. Assume that Raw will be all the rage in genre circles for the foreseeable future, and assume that Ducournau has plenty more movies just as good if not better to make. I for one cannot wait.

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