Every so often, a horror movie so refreshing comes out that makes you remember why you love horror movies. Raw, the debut feature from French director Julia Ducournau, is one such example. Already reviewed in detail by my colleague Dan Scully after a screening at last year’s Philadelphia Film Festival, I caught it this past Wednesday night, just before a wider theatrical release.
The narrative surrounding the film is a fascinating one- hailed as a shocking bit of extreme, gruesome horror, I went in expecting a thriller in the vein of High Tension or a particularly gruesome episode of Hannibal. Raw is far more than either of those things, and the deep layers at work make it a film you’ll never quite get to the bottom of. Which is a big part of its joy.
Raw begins with a puzzling scene. A long, empty road in the countryside somewhere, and a figure walking along the shoulder lane in the distance. Suddenly we see a car driving down the road from a different angle. Switch back to the first shot- that person is no longer there. Then something happens, something that is sudden, shocking and completely out of context. Later on, that context is revealed somewhat, but mostly serves to propose deeper mysteries. That’s Raw for you in a nutshell, a movie that continues to grow beyond when the credits roll, when we take the movie home with us in our minds.
After that opening, we meet Justine (Garance Marillier), a young adult living with her parents, about to leave for veterinary school (the same one her parents attended many years earlier). The cloudy skies and drab, post-war style of the high rise dorm Justine finds herself living in call to mind early David Cronenberg films like Shivers (a movie that seems to bear even more influence later in the story). This is not the beautiful french countryside we are accustomed to seeing on film. Like Cronenberg manages to accomplish so often, this is a world that looks like our own, but something about it is just off. Teachers are hardly seen. The students seem to pretty much run the place. There’s a lab for animal dissection, but it’s also right next to a morgue for humans (and attached to some type of club where they like to party). It resembles our known reality, yet at the same time leaving huge gaps.
Speaking of partying, these vet students party harder than anyone I’ve ever met, as they ring in a particularly cruel and abrasive first week of hazing rituals that Justine is expected to endure. It’s these events that set the formerly vegetarian Justine off on the path to her newfound, deep, abiding hunger for flesh.
Justine connects with her older sister, Alexia (Ella Rumpf), also enrolled at the school but inexplicably estranged from the family. She’s happy to show Justine the ropes and make her feel more welcome at the school. Their close relationship begins to resemble that of the nurse and patient in Ingmar Bergman’s Persona– a film so powerful that it’s hard to see any story of two enmeshed women without recalling it. There are shades of the jealous love triangle at the core of Powell and Pressburger’s Black Narcissus. Justine’s particular look also recalls Andrzej Zulawski’s Possession, which critic David Ehrlich pointed out and I could not un-see. Beyond her look, her strange metamorphosis also recalls the journey of Anna (Isabelle Adjani), the female protagonist in that film; and while nothing could ever rival Anna’s infamous subway miscarriage scene, there is a sex scene later in the film that is essentially Justine’s version of that; a body takeover of a primal, animalistic nature.
Raw could stand for many, many things, and as such functions like a rorschach test. You may see a story about eating disorders. You might see a coming of age tale. You might see a story about the violent pressures of conformity in young adulthood. You might see the narrative of a victim turning into an aggressor. Viewer’s choice.
Raw is simply a must see.
Raw opens today in Philly area theaters.