‘Raw’ is a treat brought to us by director Julia Ducournau. I seem to recall when this film came out that there was quite a commotion around the content. The types of film festival stories that seem to come out of the screening of a horror film seem to be somewhat common. People were fainting! People were sick! People were rushing out of the theatre, driven mad by the disturbing sights that they witnessed!
Whenever I hear these stories, I wonder if they are true. If they are, then an audience that is not used to gore is really missing the point of some of these films. If they are a marketing ploy, its unfortunate, as the gore hounds are inevitably disappointed, and it repels those who had a passing interest but don’t watch a ton of horror from watching. Either way, it seems to me that it is a case of an audience being unable to accept that a horror movie could have depth. Look at Hereditary: it was horrifying, no doubt, but to compare it to The Exorcist really set people who are expecting mainstream/traditional horror to be disappointed. The result was that an extremely dark but thoughtful and incredibly acted film became a meme-ers paradise. And don’t even get me started on the Oscar snub for Toni Collette.
Sorry, temporary fan rage. Let’s get back on track, shall we? This post is about Raw. But the point still stands.
The simplistic description of this film is that a teenaged girl becomes a cannibal. And yes, there is no denying that this is the case. But minimizing this film to its cannibal theme would be a travesty, so I’m going to take a shot and try and explain what it was about this film that I loved so much.
Raw follows Justine (Garance Marillier) as she attends veterinary school. She is heading into her first year, and the hazing is HARSH. Perhaps worse is the fact that the instructors seem somewhat unfazed by all of the happenings. Honestly, it may be cultural gap, but I was thinking, “What IS this school???” The students show up to class covered in blood on their first day and it doesn’t seem like that big of a deal. It sets the tone for the film, in fact, because there doesn’t seem anywhere that Justine can turn if she does get in to real trouble.
As part of her initiation, Justine is made to eat raw rabbit kidneys. She is repulsed, as she has always been a strict vegetarian. Her older sister, Alexia (Ella Rumpf), who also attends the school, is unsympathetic to her plight, telling her to suck it up if she wants to be cool. Justine’s problems begin with this single act. She soon begins to feel hungry all the time, and breaks out into a horrible itchy rash. She finds the school nurse, who seems to be the only sensible and compassionate adult on the campus. It’s interesting, because the only instructors that they show are male. The nurse tells a story about some interns who turn away a girl for being overweight; she is floored not only that anyone could be so cruel, but that someone could have so little understanding about what can and can’t be controlled about bodies. She advises Justine to keep her head down and just let the hazing stage pass.
While this initially seems like a good idea to Justine, she finds that “the Elders” (ie// older and wiser students) are not going to make this easy. She seeks out advice from her sister, but when she shows resistance to her sister’s suggestions, the tension between them grows. Meanwhile, the cream isn’t working and she finds herself eating raw chicken breasts in secret. Inevitably, there is escalation to, shall we say, the other white meat.
Here is where we should stop saying “It’s just a movie about a teenaged cannibal.” This movie is very much a movie about Justine finding herself. Once she opens up to this part of herself, she finds herself giving in to what she wants. She feels powerful, and confident about her body. There are several references in this build up to eating disorders. Purging is treated shockingly casually in this film, and Justine’s body is a topic of discussion as she begins to crave meat. This in itself is not surprising. In films like this where a character, particularly a female character, experiences a monstrous change, it often aligns with blooming sexuality and body image.
Where the film stands out is the examination of Justine’s relationship with Alexia. As the older sister, Alexia seems hellbent on pushing Justine around, and making her feel small. At one point, the two bond over an unlikely trait. Alexia has fully embraced the dark side of herself, whereas Justine rebels against it. Alexia has the attitude of being older, and wiser. She is clearly the black sheep of the two, and has become accustomed to not having any expectations from others. She does what she wants, when she wants, and I think that Justine loves that about her, but fears and hates it at the same time because she feels that she can never fully do the same.
By the end of the film, the full extent of the familial damage done by not communicating and overprotecting as a defense mechanism is clear. The movie is about choosing who you want to be, and fully embracing it in order to survive. Justine must choose what her future will be, and figure out what she wants for the first time. She must think not of what her parents, sister, or society want, but what she wants. The trouble is that either choice will lead to some unhappiness for Justine; she can be happy and live life always looking over her shoulder, or she can pretend for others and be miserable. Seeing these futures laid out for her is heartbreaking.
Take my advice and look beyond the cannibal plot in Raw. This animal-based story has a lot to say about being human.