A visually striking celebration of female power, Raw is a remarkably assured feature debut from yet another exciting young(ish) female director. It is hard to imagine that a body horror movie about a teenage cannibal could be so utterly mesmerising in its vivid imagery and hypnotic beauty, but 33-year-old French writer/director Julia Ducournau has constructed a nightmarishly beautiful coming-of-age drama that explores sexuality, identity, body image and conformity. In her first ever major role, Garance Marillier delivers a daring and powerful performance as Justine, a brilliant student embarking on a course of study at a prestigious veterinary college, the same school her parents attended and at which her older sister is also enrolled. Ducournau asks a lot of Marillier and the 19-year-old actress delivers in spades with a character whose emotional arc spans innocence, bewilderment and repulsion on her journey to self-discovery. This is a story about the importance of realising who you are and embracing your true identity, even if that identity just happens to be one that finds human flesh particularly tasty.
Upon arriving at the university, Justine’s first surprise comes when she learns she will be sharing her dorm with a guy. “I’m gay and, as far as the college is concerned, that is the same thing”, responds Adrien (Rabah Nait Oufella) when Justine declares that she requested a female roommate. Almost immediately, Justine finds herself thrust into a series of humiliating hazing rituals at the hands of the senior students, one of which requires her to eat a raw rabbit kidney. A devout vegetarian, Justine is faced with a crisis of conscience and it is only at the urging of her sister Alexia (Ella Rumpf) that she succumbs. The side-effects are almost immediate with Justine breaking out in a skin-peeling rash that leaves her writhing in itchy agony. It is the first of several grotesque indignities that Justine will endure as she comes to terms with her physical and psychological transformation into somebody far removed from the awkward, innocent young woman she was upon arrival. Justine’s lust for flesh also triggers some hitherto latent carnal desires, resulting in one of the most vigorous de-flowerings seen on screen.
The way in which cinematographer Ruben Impens uses colour and light, combined with an eerily effective score from Jim Williams, creates an enduring element of mystery and menace throughout. The school itself is not a particularly pleasant place – from the architecture to the teachers to the ritualistic debasement of new students – and I couldn’t help but be reminded of Ben Wheatley’s Highrise at times. That is not to say the film itself is ugly, because there is a hypnotic beauty in the fluid camera movements and striking images that contrast with the more brutally blood-filled moments of which, it must be said, there are not too many. Ducournau takes her time in revealing Justine’s evolution and she isn’t afraid to play for laughs; a waxing scene goes horribly wrong in one of the funniest moments that also serves as the turning point in Justine’s transition to fully-fledged carnivore.
It is not the cannibalistic elements that are the most troubling because Ducournau has shown great restraint in that regard; it is the hazing scenes that stand out as being over the top. Even though it is one such ritual that triggers Justine’s hankering for human flesh, some of these scenes seem beyond what even the most tolerant university would ever allow and they certainly didn’t need to be so extreme to service the story. That aside though, Raw is an otherwise excellent examination of the transition from girlhood to womanhood as our young protagonist discovers a sense of empowerment. Through it all, Justine maintains a recognisable humanity that makes her eminently likeable despite her newfound fetish, which is simply another hurdle she has to overcome in her quest to find her place in the world.