A piece of sausage hidden in a mound of mashed potato slopped onto the plate by a stained apron buffet clerk finds its way into a vegetarian’s mouth. She fidgets and spits it back onto the plate. Disgusted by the food establishment’s negligence, the girl’s mother takes the plate and complains furiously to the server. She has more reason to be angry than any other parent of a meat abstainer though, as she fears that a taste for animal flesh in her bloodline can be a gateway to something much more sinister.
Raw is Julia Ducournau’s debut feature, a coming of age horror that tells the story of a young cannibal Justine (Garance Miller) and her descent into a familial lust for human flesh. Once a vegetarian at the behest of her mother whose own cannibalism is concealed until the final moments of the film, Justine’s tastes transfer once she is force-fed a raw piece of meat and covered in blood as part of her initiation into veterinary college. Once her primal instincts are egregiously given an inch, she takes a mile, with her lust for the carnal moving beyond the common college freshman and into the deranged. She more than makes up for what meat she has missed when she jumps upon the irresistible urge to eat the lips of sexual suitors, gorge on her own arm, and chow down on the lifeless neck of a road accident victim.
The film has a broader agenda than the shock-and-gore of feasting on body parts however, despite how numerous and indulgent these eye-blocking sequences are. Its title is not only a direct play on the cannibalistic theme, but also lends itself to the inexperience, naiveté and immaturity of its heroine. Justine’s introduction into sex, isolation, estrangement, femininity and identity are all focus points for Ducournau, each of which we are given intimate and honest access into. The fact of her cannibalism is merely one aspect of her new life that she has to grow accustom to. It is a persistent throbbing boil on top of the ache of growing up, an over incumbent lust that seeks to account for what has so far been a reluctant existence.
Following her journey through the first term of a depraved veterinary school environment, we watch Justine evolve from a puppy-eyed virgin to a devilishly self-assured taboo breaker. Exemplary work of the excellent character craftsmanship of Ducournau are the precisely executed long takes that usher the audience through debauched party scenes where we spin our walking gaze to see sweat soaked teens indulging in youthful anarchic freedom. At first, we follow behind a wary, shy Justine through such a scene on her first night, and later, we travel alone, drawn in by the intoxicated gaze of a scantily clad head bobbing Justine who observes a sensual eyeball-lick between her and the audience with an ominous smirk.
Justine’s descent is accommodated by her elder sister Alexia (Ella Rumpf) who is in her second year of the college and exists as Justine’s double, a characteristic devil on her shoulder, and a foreshadowing of what she may become. Alexia has long succumbed and grown accustom to her cannibalistic desires and is far deeper down its rabbit hole, and glad her sister will be joining her there. She pokes the raw rabbit kidney down Justine’s reluctant throat, shows her the ropes of the hunt, but ultimately takes her own addiction too far, and signals a red light for Justine before it’s too late.
Ducournau’s brooding mise-en-scène is paramount to the enticing atmosphere and mood of the picture. From the opening scene in which a silent, empty rural road is lambasted with the screech of a swerving car, an edging, unsettling pace is maintained. Jim Williams’ score matches the aesthetic with a theme that performs a fulcrum shift between a bittersweet plucked acoustic guitar and an overdriven gothic organ. In one particular scene where a close up pubic waxing is already tough to stomach, a severed finger ups the ante, and Justine’s suckle on said finger accompanies Williams’ swelling theme to blow the sequence into an incredibly visceral finale.
While the film deals most overtly in the emotional and the direct, its visuals experiment with the playful and ambiguous. A dream sequence of a horse on a treadmill resonated with metaphoric purpose throughout the picture for me, perhaps a parallel idea in-keeping with Justine’s own imperative action. Her bareness and vulnerability are embellished by a similarly eerie sequence where the camera creeps towards a blanketed dog carcass that is swiftly uncovered by a ghostly presence. In another of the film’s symbolically articulated scenes, and perhaps my favourite, Justine is covered in blue paint and told not to leave the room until her and a fellow male freshman in yellow make green.
The film strikes an important balance between its sincere subject matter and humorous, playful execution, it is as much an exploration of awkward teenhood as it is a hyperbolic gothic horror. Its poise between the two and timely dabbles into both make for a powerful and well-crafted viewing experience.
Feature image source: Vogue