The best thing about Raw, a new French-Belgian coming-of-age/horror film, is its economy.
On its face, the premise is ridiculous. A vegetarian girl goes off to veterinary college, and during her hazing into the vet school, she is forced to eat a small bite of rabbit kidney. That one taste of animal flesh eventually leads to her feeling intense cravings for human flesh. It’s, in other words, a bit of a vampire tale, if becoming a vampire turned a person into a cannibal.
But in the hands of writer-director Julia Ducournau, the film becomes a fascinating, metaphorical exploration of becoming an adult — or female sexuality, or animal rights, or something like that. It’s the kind of movie that keeps a few of its cards to itself, so you know there’s a lot more in its mind than is up there onscreen, and it wants you to speculate as to what it might be pondering.
Ducournau’s storytelling — in terms of both visuals and screenwriting — however, is airtight. Characters are introduced and immediately defined with brief, quick strokes. Each scene leads to the next with direct simplicity. There’s absolutely no fat here, which is impressive for a director’s first feature film.
Raw isn’t perfect, but it understands one very big idea: No belief system, no matter how rigid, can’t be compromised. And the second that happens, everything else starts to crumble and fall.
Raw stays pinned to one girl’s point of view, even as that perspective turns more and more horrific
Though it has plenty of other characters, the reason Raw is so stripped down and, well, raw is because Ducournau makes the choice to follow Justine, her protagonist, from start to finish. The movie becomes something of a duet between Ducournau and her star, newcomer Garance Marillier.
For much of Raw’s first half, characters react to Justine as if she’s the strangest person they’ve ever met, even though there’s nothing outwardly bizarre about her behavior. What sells all of this is that Marillier plays Justine as sweet and a little awkward, but also perhaps too devoted to her beliefs. She has to be forced to eat the rabbit kidney. She shouts down a classmate who tries to suggest AIDS resulted from a man having sex with a monkey. She doesn’t entirely know how to act around boys — even her gay roommate.
But instead of making Justine seem like a weird outsider, Ducournau treats her inability to compromise her values as fundamentally righteous, even when it causes her real pain and a diminishment in her social status.
The first scene featuring Justine shows her refusing to eat mashed potatoes when cafeteria workers slip a meatball in it as a prank, and those are the stakes of the movie: When you take the smallest of steps away from the code you live by — even if it’s just “I don’t eat meat” — everything tends to collapse. And college students are always testing the bounds of the codes they live by.
Justine doesn’t try to push her way of life on others. It’s just who she is. She doesn’t eat animals, no matter how much people might make fun of her for it. Every choice Ducournau makes emphasizes Justine’s outsider status, but also how standing outside of others makes her who she is. This is underlined by her choice (along with cinematographer Ruben Impens) to shoot many scenes not featuring Justine in extreme wide shots, other humans as mere specks in them, as if Justine is only dimly aware of people outside of her immediate circle.
But, of course, growing up is all about making compromises with your values. You either find a way to blend what you believe with what society believes, or you head off into your own world, cutting off others. Justine might wish to do no harm to animals, yet she’s also going to veterinary school, where animals are instinctually frightened of the treatments they undergo. (Ducournau shoots almost all of the animals — whether horse, cow, or dog — as strange alien beings that often take up too much of the frame for their relative importance to the scene.)
Cannibalism acts as an all-purpose symbol in Raw
Thus, cannibalism in Raw becomes one of those all-purpose symbols, one that stands in for the end result of any compromise you take in the name of joining society.
Eating a tiny piece of rabbit kidney in order to get along — even if your sister forces you to do it — is ultimately the same as killing someone else to eat them in the heart of a true believer.
That sister is important too. Alexia (Ella Rumpf) wants to help her sister fit in, wants to help her get the most out of college. But she’s also more extroverted than Justine, and she doesn’t understand how to let Justine just be the strange little weirdo she is. Ducournau demonizes neither character — even when Justine starts sampling human flesh — or any other character in her film. College is for experimentation, after all, for figuring out who you are outside of your parents’ shadow.
There are things I don’t like about Raw, particularly places where Ducournau could have perhaps underlined her point a bit more forcefully, or better stitched the connective tissue between scenes. (One cut late in the movie totally threw me for about 30 seconds before I figured out what was happening.)
But those things are overwhelmed by what I do like, from the beautiful framing (including one of the best-shot sex scenes I’ve ever seen, one that underlines multiple layers of exploitation and consent entirely through visuals) to the ways the movie winks at an entire culture where women can be made to feel unsafe for any reason.
Maybe that’s why I loved Justine so much, even as her cravings grew. As we come of age, we all realize the world won’t always budge for us, unless we force it to. Justine’s solution to that problem is unorthodox, to be sure, but aren’t all of our answers in the end?
Raw is playing in select theaters around the country. You can see a list of theaters where it’s playing now at the film’s website.