Spread writer Matthew Wilson sinks his teeth into Raw, the new cannibalistic horror sensation that everybody’s been talking about.
As a self-proclaimed fan of modern French horror I had high hopes for Raw I knew the rumours of fainting audience members were exaggerated but I still wanted this to deliver and it more than did so with easily the best French cannibal sex movie I’ve seen all year.
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 firm vegetarian who struggles with the school heavy use of hard music and harder partying. During the hazing rituals Justine is forced to eat raw rabbit kidney resulting in a violent allergic reaction to it with a bad rash breaking out on 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 cravings. But following an incident with her sister, Justine slowly opens 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 centre stage with the hunger for flesh being literal and figurative. On the surface you have a low-key horror about a girl discovering her taste for human flesh and fighting her ever increasing urges, but beneath that you have a tale of a young girl’s social, academic and sexual horizons opening and her internal struggle between diving head-first or keeping safe. There’s no big surprise in the story but between a sisterly rivalry and Justine’s own awakening there’s enough to carry you through.
The cast is fairly limited but 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, not a huge role but towards the second half of the film it becomes an important one.
Alexia is the polar opposite of her sister, 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 that Justine is seen as the responsible sister whereas Alexia is the lost cause so while the two of them are friendly, Alexia resents her sisters favouritism. There’s a strange quality to Alexia where you can’t tell if she’s on Justine’s side or not, at times she’s very friendly, at others cruel and it creates a dynamic of confusion that felt very realistic to a sisterly relationship. There’s more to Alexia that I can’t get into but she holds a much bigger place in the story that you might think.
Justine though, holy hell 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 after she gets a taste for meat she still tries to keep her head down but there’s a part of her that’s slowly opening her up to experimentation and it’s 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 what can only be described as chillingly sexualised. This is easily one of the bravest performances I’ve seen in a long time and Marillier just has no fear with what the film has her do
First time feature director Julia Ducournau makes a big impact, particularly with feminist themes, because of the Justine struggles with her identity, her transformation is met with hostility. When she hides away in her books she’s made fun of being too academic and boring, but when she starts playing along she seen as too weird and crazed with no middle ground. But the film makes the point that maybe there shouldn’t have to be a middle ground, Justine is already in an awkward stage of her life that’s been made worse by her cannibalism but through it all Justine is herself as she has the right to be. Not to go into too much detail but there’s elements that try to make Justine’s condition part of who she is, the more she tries to fight it the harder it gets for her to accept herself. Rather than substituting violence for sexuality or vice-versa, Ducournau has embedded the two of them together.
In doing so she’s allowed herself the chance to create some of the most provocative horror images since Byzantium, there is a thick atmosphere to this film that just freezes you in place when the film’s grislier elements came into play. The film wasn’t as gory as I was expecting but god it is visceral, the few moments of violence carry so much more weight because of how the film handles them, whenever Justine gave into her desires and that incredible theme kicked in the film just wouldn’t let go. I was expecting more blood but the film still managed to distress and unnerve me with what it had to offer, I won’t spoil what happens but 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 it helps to know what you’re getting into. It’s not for everyone but it wasn’t made to be, this is a new high for modern horror lovers looking something with bite. Between the transformation storyline, the brave performance from Marillier and the unnerving stylish atmosphere, Ducournau has presented a film whose progressive attitude to violence and sexuality will challenge its audience as much as it disturbs them.
Raw is out now in cinemas.