It is a rare and splendid thing when fresh talent makes a stir in the film business. It only happens every so often, but in the case of Julia Ducournau her first fully-fledged feature film is a solid showcasing of fresh talent and a darkly entertaining view of a standard narrative.
Raw provides an unconventional and disturbing take on a standard coming-of-age story, taking something as off-putting as the idea of cannibalism and having it serve as the foundation for a story of self-discovery – and having such an audacious move actually work. Justine (Garance Marillier) is an aspiring medical student hailing from a long line of veterinarians – and vegetarians. When she arrives at medical school, she is swiftly subjected to a hazing ritual that leaves her with a dark hunger for meat, and as her forbidden appetite grows ever more voracious, she undergoes a personal transformation that is both disturbing and earnestly moving.
Raw distinguishes itself from both its contemporaries and from certain similar films of the past not through things like rampant subversion of basic tropes, but through taking a premise that would normally be seen as absurd – even repulsive – and imbuing it with an earnest emotional sincerity. In so many cases, it would be easy to imagine the plot as a generic set-up for something gorier and far more cliched, but in a statement on breaking the societal bonds and standard identifiers that tie people down, Ducournau takes the concept of equating cannibalism with personal maturity and runs with it with deadly seriousness. In that sense, the film suffers from a slight case of incorrect labelling.
The movie is not a horror flick in the true sense of the word. In fact, while undeniably containing some hauntingly memorable sequences that will make the squeamish avert their eyes, it is a darkly fascinating take on the concept of a coming-of-age film more than anything else, dolled up with a very light sprinkling of average horror tropes. Interspersed with scenes that are commonplace in any such film about personal growth and scholastic learning – Justine receiving advice from her sister Alexia (Ella Rumpf) on how to be attractive, or walking in on her roommate Adrien (Rabah Nait Oufella) in the middle of a sexual encounter – Ducournau takes subjects that are often considered taboo and attempts to normalise them in a commentary on the idea of personal identity. It chronicles Justine’s growth in strange new directions, as her newfound obsession with meat develops into something much more troubling.
This is where the film’s strengths lie, in taking a subject that is so widely perceived as abhorrent and actually succeeding in creating something that is emotionally resonant. Justine is imbued with the qualities of Frankenstein, given a touchingly tragic portrayal and never once reduced to the level of a villain or a caricature despite her actions, something that works strong in the film's favour, and even as the film progresses and we bear witness to some genuinely shocking acts of depravity the script never loses sight of trying to retain Justine’s humanity. The story takes considerable care not to vilify her – indeed, it displays many of her actions as impulsive as she tries to satisfy a craving like any other girl would, and compares her actions to the growing pains teenagers feel upon reaching the peculiar stage in their lives that is maturity. We are subject to the command of our bodies, Ducournau posits - a supposition displayed early on in the film when Justine and her fellow students gather to witness a horse being sedated, and it is through that approach that she aims to show Justine's reaction to her development without casting aspersions on her.
The effectiveness of the storytelling and character-building is only enhanced further by Marillier’s outstanding performance. While this is not her first acting role in the strictest sense, her big-screen debut is undeniably mesmerising. She commits herself to the role, putting a whole realm of emotions on display as Justine, coming into her element as the character gradually undergoes her awakening. As we see almost the entire film from her perspective, we come to see that her ongoing transformation presents a tragically unique personal dilemma. Isolation takes hold as her craving evolves into something much more carnal, and as she blossoms emotionally, between moments of dark eroticism she grapples with her new sense of self and the way she sees those around her even as she strives to connect with other people. The end result is someone who is intensely compelling and almost relatable, a girl maturing in her own way and finding ways to cope in chaotic circumstances. Justine is what makes this film, and she is a character made all the more memorably by the sheer effort that Marillier puts into the role.
The other performances have nowhere near the same level of prominence – though considering that the film’s focus is primarily limited to a single character this is to be somewhat expected. Rumpf delivers a convincing turn as Alexia, and it is she who ends up getting a significant portion of the leftover screen time as the film goes on to highlight the peculiar relationship the sisters share. The on-again, off-again dysfunctionality that simmers between them and the strange kind of love they both share is a driving force behind many key moments in the film, and both Rumpf and Marillier, equally relatively new actors, match each other blow for blow. Additionally, Laurent Lucas and Joanna Preiss give small yet sufficient performances as Justine and Alexia’s strangely detached parents.
From a visual perspective, too, the film does not relent. It does not indulge in visual excess, but the cinematography and scene composition are relatively strong – the lighting is often used to put Justine’s mood and thoughts front and centre, there are a handful of striking shots and memorable scenes that take advantage of the lighting and the eerie, chaotic and often hypersexual environment peppered throughout the running time, especially in the film’s third act, and the film’s few moments of genuine goriness can be unabashedly nauseating.
Despite that, however, the film suffers from its other aspects not standing out as much. The score is not any louder than it needs to be, but with the exception of one particular scene and a wonderfully effective use of a track from Orties that perfectly encapsulates Justine’s development, there is not much to write home about. The writing is passable but somewhat plain – and while the emphasis placed on Justine’s expressions, wordless actions and small subtleties trumps that, the final product still feels slightly wanting.
It is far from the most delicate or palatable film from its subject matter alone, and from the way it unflinchingly, dauntlessly goes about its business some viewers may be more inspired to walk out in revulsion than anything else. But Raw asks us to look beyond preconceptions, even when dealing with taboo subject matters. At the heart of this film is not a monster, but a frightened teenager discovering herself – and it is the pathos born from that, from a normal approach to "taboo" ideas, that makes this film so unquestionably special.