I’ve mentioned before – several times in fact – that I love modern French horror, ‘Martyrs’ is an all-time favorite of mine and ‘Inside’ had messed me up more times than I care to think of. So when news of ‘Raw’ came out with people fainting in the theater, I knew I had to see it. Those fainting rumors turned out to be exaggerated, but I still had high hopes for this to deliver and it more than did so. This is easily the best French cannibal sex movie I’ve seen all year and a near definite for my ‘Top 10’ of 2017.
The film opens with protagonist Justine (Garance Marillier) starting her first year at Veterinary school, the same school her sister Alexia (Ella Rumpf) is currently studying. Justine is a quiet, shy bookworm, and firm vegetarian who struggles with the school heavy use of hard music and harder partying. During the intense hazing rituals Justine is forced to eat raw rabbit kidney and almost immediately has a violent allergic reaction to it with a bad rash breaking out onto her body. However, something changes inside Justine and she soon finds herself with a hunger for meat.
Fighting against her stalwart vegetarianism, Justine is only able to confide in her roommate, openly gay Adrien (Rabah Naït Oufella), about her craving for meat. But following an incident with her sister, Justine finds herself slowly opening herself up to the wild parties the school has to offer, becoming more outgoing, more sexual and more animalistic.
Think ‘Ginger Snaps’ with a much darker and much meaner streak running through it, Justine’s transformation takes center stage with the hunger for flesh being more literal and figurative. On the surface you have a low-key horror movie about a girl making the horrifying discovery that she has a taste for human flesh and fights her ever increasing urges. Beneath that you have a tale of a young girl’s horizons opening in ways she never expected; socially, academically, sexually, a whole world of life she’s never experience and her internal struggle between diving head-first or keeping to what she knows is safe. There’s no big surprise in the story between a sisterly rivalry and Justine’s own awakening that’s enough to carry you through.
The cast is fairly limited but in doing so focus is kept only on the important players, Adrien is openly gay and is caught numerous times in sexual situations which start to fuel Justine’s blossoming libido. Adrien acts as an anchor, keeping the reality of Justine’s situation grounded whilst also providing her with a friend when things keep too intense to handle. It’s not a huge role but towards the second half of the film it becomes an important one.
Justine’s sister Alexia is almost her polar opposite, where Justine is bookish and quiet, Alexia is loud and stubborn, often pushing her sister into situations she doesn’t want to be in. It’s established early on that Justine is seen as the responsible sister whereas Alexia is the lost cause so while the two of them have a good relationship, Alexia does resent her sister and this proves to be the catalyst for what comes next. There’s a strange quality to Alexia where you can’t tell if she’s on Justine’s side or not, and at times she’s very forthcoming and friendly, at others she’s pushy and cruel. This creates a dynamic of confusion that felt very realistic to a sisterly relationship, especially as such a hormone heavy time of their lives, but with the added weight of Justine’s cannibalism, the fractured moments carry a lot more to them when trying to figure out where Alexia stands. There’s more to her that I can’t get into without fringing on spoilers, but she holds a much bigger place in the story that you might think.
Justine though, holy hell this is a performance. I’ve never seen Marillier in anything before this but damn she is a force in this flick. The transformation she goes through is palpable, you can almost literally see her change in front of you, for the first half she’s this socially awkward new girl, uncomfortable in the claustrophobic environments of the school’s party rooms, but so desperate to fit in nonetheless. There’s just something about her body language that screams closed off and guarded, even around her sister. Even after she first gets a taste for meat she still tries to keep her head down and out of the way, but there’s a part of her that’s slowly taking towards opening herself up to experimentation and it is incredible to witness. If Marillier was spot-on as the innocent bookworm she’s even more-so as the cannibalistic sex-bomb, her growth in confidence and intensity exudes off the screen in waves. During a very odd sequence, Justine basically seduces herself through a mirror in what can only be described as chillingly sexualized. This is easily one of the ballsiest performance I’ve seen in a long time, Marillier just has no fear with what the film has her do, making the central plot of the film all the stronger.
First time feature director Julia Ducournau makes a big impact with her first hit out the box, in typical fashion for French Horror, the feminist themes are present, because of the film’s underlying theme of the struggles with identity, Justine’s growth from a girl to a woman is met with hostility. When she hides away in her books or speaking out in favor of animals being held in the same regard as people she’s made fun of being too academic and boring. But when she starts opening herself up and playing along she seen as too weird and crazed with no middle ground. Funnily enough though, the film makes the point that maybe there shouldn’t have to be a middle ground, Justine is already in a very awkward stage of her life that’s been made worse by her descent into cannibalism but through it all, even during her enticement into the wild-side, Justine is herself as she has the right to be. Not to go into too much detail, but there’s an element of the film that tries to justify Justine’s condition and make it part of who she is. The more she tries to fight it, the harder it gets for her to accept herself in the world. Rather than substituting violence for sexuality or vice-versa, Ducournau has embedded the two of them together.
In doing so, Justine’s allowed herself the chance to create some of the most provocative images in horror since Byzantium. There is a thick atmosphere to this film that just drapes over you and holds you in place when the film’s grislier elements come into play. To my surprise the film isn’t as gory as I was expecting but god it is visceral, the few moments of violence carry so much more weight to them because of how the film handles them. Whenever Justine gave into her desires and that incredible theme kicked in playing a synth version of chamber music, the film just grabbed me and wouldn’t let go. I was expecting so much more in terms of blood and gore, but the film still managed to distress and unnerve me with what it had to offer from both animals and humans. I won’t spoil any details on what happens in the film, but prepare to be disturbed, there are no punches pulled and the frank nature of it all will get under your skin in the best way possible.
Recommending ‘Raw’ is difficult because I know a lot of people will be turned off by the premise and indeed you do have to know exactly what you’re getting into with this movie. It’s definitely not for everyone but it wasn’t made to be, this is a new high for modern horror lovers looking for something with bite. Between the transformation story-line, the brave performance from Marillier, and the unnerving stylish atmosphere Ducournau has presented a film whose progressive attitude to violence and sexuality challenges it’s audience as much as it disturbs them.
4 ½ hairpieces out of 5.