Not since John Fawcett’s Canadian cult classic GINGER SNAPS and more recently Jonas Alexander Arnby’s WHEN ANIMALS DREAM has such truth and vulnerability been shown within each frame of horror storytelling, showing an amalgamation of cannibalism, vampirism and a coming of age-like rite of passage like the French/Belgium film RAW. Submerged with a weary and inexperienced sense of understanding, the setting against a university backdrop, where the most promising students in France take the next steps of their lives personally and educationally, we see the dark side of addiction and finding your own voice among secrets, pressure and temptation. Written and directed by Julia Ducournau, this debut feature is so powerful and at times terrifying and fragile, that it’s easy to slowly lose yourself to the temptation and craving of this macabre tale.
Opening with a bang and following a family in transition, freshman student Justine (Garance Marillier), joining her sister Alexia (Ella Rumpf) at university to become a veterinarian, says goodbye to her parents in order to begin her academic career. Justine is a vegetarian who has never tasted any form of meat or animal in her life which is symbolic of the journey ahead. Moving into her dorm room, Justine meets and befriends her homosexual roommate Adrien (Rabah Nait Oufella), forming a bond and becoming friends. Justine finds comfort, a best friend and safety in Adrien, who is also finding his own way after not being honest with himself for many years. From almost the first night, we see the upper classmen put the freshman through the hell of initiation, truly violating the little part of themselves found in their dorm rooms. During one of initiation rites of passage, Justine is faced with a moral question and pressure from her sister as well as the upperclassman challenge her to eat a piece of raw meat to be more accepted from her peers and connected to the animals they will be working with and on. As Justine chokes down the piece of tender meat, a spark ignites inside and a change begins on every level of her being. Justine begins to crave substance of all kinds. At first it is small things like a sandwich or being more open to trying things or even changes in her appearance. As the void grows deeper, it leads to sexual activities, any piece of raw meat human or animal as well as attention of any kind. A new woman is being revealed within Justine, at first trying to repress the changes but slowly through pressures of different kinds, cruelty and inexperience become her all-consuming world. With each day that goes by, the bonds with her friend Adrien become more developed and intimate. Her behaviors continue to cast her out of the tribal mentality of university as her at one-time estranged sister Alexia becomes closer to her, teaching her the ways that are consuming her. She becomes a role model building that bond and a guide to her development as a woman and more. As Alexia spirals downward with the pressure and responsibility of her sister now following her footsteps, Justine’s life is thrown into darkness and chaos laced with temptations of all kinds facing her, the growing hunger developing each day.
First time feature filmmaker Julie Ducournau finds her voice in the discovery of these characters, secrets and actions which, for me, is so much more than just a horror film. This is another project that falls into the lineage of the unrelenting sensory and extremity of French filmmaking that blends horror storytelling into the reality of what the country is going through on different levels. From the overall innocence of the lamb transforming into the wolf via a journey of pain that each of these characters go through, the film is crafted in a very developed form of storytelling as well as the scary truth of a university experience with hazing, gossip, educational pressures, relationships and the development of a woman. RAW has something for everyone in this very complete and palpable story. The film is layered with symbolism and defining actions that will shake you and truly engage your understanding at the same time. If you are into the darker side of coming of age as well as sexual discovery, Ducournau does an excellent job revealing the changes and struggles against a backdrop of pressure and temptation, the idea of sisterhood and understanding of the power of addiction. For gore hounds, the practical FX work is so targeted and reactionary as the blood, gore, and exploration of animal and human bodies become more intense with each frame as we discover the urges and hunger growing in scale.
The cast of RAW are all superb, with each character so vulnerable and really developed, finding their voices through the madness. Each character has a connecting look, a unique confusion and conflict. Personal ticks as well as deep seated demons that burned to the surface and to the director’s credit, were never rushed in the overall pace and development. The cultivating of relationships takes turns and they flourish in the most unrelenting and dark ways surprising and creating twists that surprised.
The camera work has the feel of documentary style, very much a haze, with dark tones and a twilight lighting that continues to get darker as the film goes on and each stage of Justine’s life changes until it may be too late. Ducournau understands the importance of silence that lingers within a moment, a discovery or an action which at times is so crucial and telling for the film. This plays into the timeline of Justine and her spiral into the darkness, with her journey continuing to build tension and the need to witness and understand how much lower and darker can she go? This culminates in a portrait of horror, discovery and the feral attraction from a very vulnerable and honest French film landscape in the powerhouse experience of consumption in RAW.