Justine (Garance Marillier) is a first-year veterinary student, joining the same prestige academy where her parents studied and where her older sister Alexia (Ella Rumpf) is a senior. During the academy’s brutal and demeaning hazing rituals, Justine – a committed vegan – is soaked in blood and forced to eat a raw rabbit’s kidney. She immediately develops food poisoning, a virulent rash, and an insatiable craving for meat.
Writer/director Julia Ducournau’s 2016 horror film Raw is really something: at turns unsettling, horrifying and nauseating. It is a near-masterpiece of genre filmmaking, but it is also so distinctively off-putting that it is a challenge to universally recommend. Its title feels deliberate: Raw because it’s a horror movie about cannibalism, and Raw because of how powerfully Ducournau had addressed issues and challenges of life as a young woman.
The horrors of the film feel like responses to real-world assaults. Justine, a vegan, is forced to eat meat and is violently abused and demeaned by hazing rituals. She responds by out-monstering the monsters. Her developing sexual hunger is expressed in literally hungry ways; when she has sex, it feels like a violent, carnivorous act. When a young man tries to pressure her for sex during one particular degrading incident, her response is to bite out a chunk of his lip. Every violent assault Justine enacts is provoked, and each provocation feels like an attack against women. To be honest, the horror film of which it most reminds me is director John Fawcett’s 2000 cult classic Ginger Snaps. It tackles these themes in a very pop culture sort of a way. Raw tackles them for realism with a much more direct and visceral approach; for me that makes it a much more impactful film.
In one early scene a horse is sedated on screen. It’s as confronting as anything else presented in the film; arguably more so, since Ducournau gained permission from a veterinary school to shoot a genuine sedation. It’s real: the horse’s panic and distress, its awkward collapse to the ground, the invasive apparatus that’s attached and inserted while it sleeps. Later scenes show animal cadavers and autopsies with a similarly blunt, unglorified frankness. It’s confronting, but it’s also important because it situates the fantastical horror of Justine’s cannibalism in a realistic context. It would be easy to escape the real horror of Justine’s transformation by hand-waving it away as some gory fantasy. Ducournau deliberately blocks that escape from the viewer. She makes the horror inescapable and emotionally real. She also evens the playing field in a sense: the cannibalism is horrifying, but so is the treatment of animals. One is fantasy for a horror movie; the other happens all the time.
Raw is a superb work of bold and confrontational filmmaking. While clearly not for all viewers, it is a proper treat for those looking for a horror film that extents beyond simply jumps and scares and delivers instead a rolling nightmare of provocation, realism and dread. Had I seen this during 2017 it would have absolutely made my end-of-year list. It is a fabulous and strikingly original film.