Raw, the French-Belgian horror film from writer/director Julia Ducournau, is no easy watch. It’s a deliberately paced slog interspersed with disturbing visuals and tension. It is a film designed to make viewers uneasy — the type of horror film that trades in disgust rather than fright.
Raw tells the story of Justine (Garance Marillier), a young woman who is beginning her first year at veterinary school. Veterinary school in France, apparently, is a place of mass hazing, as all the first year students, referred to as rookies in the subtitles, are subjected to an endless stream of fraternity-style shenanigans. Justine is game, right up until the moment she has to eat a raw rabbit’s kidney. She isn’t the only one forced to do so. All the other rookies participate, but Justine is a lifelong vegetarian, and a raw rabbit’s kidney is no way to be introduced to meat. But, with some prodding from her older sister Alexia (Ella Rumpf), also a student at the school, she chokes it down.
Lo and behold, the succulent taste of raw kidney has awakened a yearning for meat in young Justine. An unhealthy yearning for meat. Wherever and whenever she can get it, she is a ravenous consumer of meat. Raw and bloody, her appetite is animalistic. Eventually, through one of the more insane moments I’ve seen put to film, Justine discovers a taste for human flesh.
It’s at this point in the film that Ducournau could have taken the plot into any number of familiar places. Justine could have been transformed into a sexy, vampiric predator, stalking parties and nightclubs for unsuspecting, lusting coeds to take back to her dorm room to feast upon. She could have been turned into a silent psychopath, stalking her prey in darkness and isolation. There is a strong temptation to see the character rack up kills. But that’s not the kind of film that Ducournau directed. She eschewed the boilerplate tropes of horror — which are just fine in other films, by the way. She chose, in her story, to keep Justine relatively unchanged by the discovery of her fetish (fetish is the right term, as well — Justine’s appetites are both culinary and sexual). Justine is no more or less weird than she was early on in the film. Now it’s just apparent.
That’s not to say there’s a lack of character development. Far from it. It’s just that such grim discoveries about one’s self — such as cannibalism — tend to transform characters in film to such an extent that those characters are no longer true to themselves.
Ducournau shows a deft touch in her treatment of Justine, but not a soft one. She puts Marillier through the ringer in her performance, making the role a physical one. Marillier, for her part, showed great skill as an actress, despite being a teenager during filming.
The film is very grey. The veterinary campus, its interiors and exteriors, is a sea of concrete and bland, institutional paint. There’s nary an exterior scene filmed without an overcast sky, and all the veterinary students wear lab coats constantly. The aesthetic is very housing project, circa 1965, and inhuman. I found it to be evocative of an examination room. Not unusual for a veterinary school, to be sure, but the aesthetic is inescapable, used to effect as a subsurface layer of tension that aides the focus of any given scene. The dialogue at times can be a little more heavy-handed than the atmosphere, being a touch too blunt with the foreshadowing and symbolism.
I liked this film quite a lot, but there are two factors that will probably keep me from seeing it again for some time. The first factor is just how disturbing the whole thing is. There isn’t near the same amount of gore in this film as there is in a typical episode of The Walking Dead, but how the graphic imagery is used in this film makes viewing it far more unsettling. The second factor is the pace. This is a slow film. It’s almost sacrilege among the art house crowd to declare deliberateness a problem with a film, but it is. The last half hour of this film was wearying. By this point the viewer needs no more plot setup. We are ready for resolution. Still, Raw is a pretty good film.