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When Incipient Womanhood Meets Incipient Cannibalism: ‘RAW’

“Raw” is a grisly and necessary portrait of young womanhood that definitely isn’t for the faint of heart.

By Entertainment

Illustration by Brian Fabry Dorsam

Few films have been able to generate the specific sort of word-of-mouth that Julia Ducournau’s “Raw” has. Yes, Ducournau’s film has built a name for itself as being a spectacular entry to the horror film genre. Yes, “Raw” has joined the ranks of “The Babadook” and “American Psycho” as chill-inducing genre fare, helmed by female directors. And, yes, “Raw” has also established itself as one of those rare flicks to induce vomiting and loss of consciousness in multiple moviegoers. Somehow, “Raw” manages to be one of those rare (pun intended) movies that manages to fire on all of these cylinders at once.

At its most basic, “Raw” tells the tale of brilliant, young, aspiring veterinarian, Justine (Garance Marillier), as she begins her college career. Starting off with a subtly tense bang, the movie’s first images are of a mysterious car crash.  Thus, the film quickly establishes its tone. It lives on the line between subtlety and intensity that creates a tangible tension you can feel throughout.

Right from the start, the movie identifies itself as a piece that is concerned with the gray areas of the human experience. Here’s a young woman living out from under the strict guidelines of her parents for the first time. She finds herself in a new setting, living with an unexpectedly gay, male roommate, Adrien (played by the beautiful Rabah Nait Oufella), surrounded by peers she doesn’t fit in with.

Furthermore, she finds herself at odds with her one expected ally, her older sister Alexia (Ella Rumpf). Justine is on the brink of adulthood — more specifically, womanhood. She finds herself coming to terms with her own sexuality. Layer on top of all of this a sudden, irresistible need to feed on human flesh, and the possibilities are endless.

Ducournau takes full advantage of those possibilities. As a director, she embraces the complexities of these issues and handles them with style and subtlety. That’s quite the achievement; to handle with subtlety an image of stark, bloody red flesh being torn apart by a young woman’s teeth. Yet, the duality of this achievement may just be what turns so many viewers’ stomachs.

As the title suggests, there is gore and disturbing imagery throughout the film once it gets going.  However, “Raw” has little more (less, even) blood and guts than one would see in an episode of “The Walking Dead,”  or even more comedic fare like “The Santa Clarita Diet.” It’s actually interesting to compare “Raw” to the Netflix original series, considering how much these two have in common, despite the difference in tones. Though there is a lesser volume of gore, it’s handled with a straightforward directness that is effectively alienating to the audience. The imagery is not gratuitous and the violence isn’t stylized or sensationalized in the way most (Western) horror tends to be. There’s almost a delicacy to it.

One instance comes following the course of events that trigger Justine’s hunger for flesh. The first time she tastes human meat comes about after an accident. While attempting to aid her sister, who’s inadvertently injured herself, Justine becomes entranced by a drop of blood that falls into her palm. Almost reflexively, she laps it up, in a way one might imagine sticking a pricked finger into one’s mouth. It is an utterly human moment.

It’s also transformative, making it all the more human. Justine then finds herself unable to resist a nibble, then a bite. Suddenly Ducournau presents the audience with a completely recognizable image turned on its head. Imagine watching a friend eat a buffalo wing; now imagine instead of chicken, that wing is a human appendage.

All of these images are juxtaposed with the very direct manipulation of animal bodies, as expected in the setting of a veterinary school, putting a very clear focus on the question of what animals —  bodies, flesh— really are. These are further combined with visuals of young, hormonal, college students giving into their own animal urges and baser carnal instincts. The shifting mise-en-scene spins together to create an immersive sensory experience that some might find overwhelming.

Horror films as a genre lend themselves to fascinating social commentary, and the heightened circumstances of a film like “Raw” provide plenty to unpack. The most obvious themes of female sexuality only scratch the surface of the fascinating conversations Ducournau launches with her film.

Of course, there is a one-to-one correlation between Justine’s burgeoning sexual carnality and her dietary carnality. This makes for an interesting objectification of the male body, both as a sex object and as food.

However, when Justine’s gaze and physical lust focus on the body of her gay, male roommate, Adrien, the obvious dynamic shifts and reversals between male and female are complicated. All of a sudden there’s an interesting subtext touching on the uniquely complicated dynamics between gay men and straight women. Take, for instance, bachelorette parties in Boystown, the cross-cultural pollination / appropriation between the two groups, or even the sense of solidarity between them.

There is also significant discussion on ideas of feminism, not only sexually, but also between heterosexual women — literally sisters, in this case. So often these discussions of feminism fail to look beyond the dynamics between the two genders. Still, the inter-female dynamics of feminism are just as important.

Consider all the women who don’t think of themselves as feminists. In looking at the relationship between Justine and her older sister Alexia, and even their mother, Ducournau starts a fascinating discourse on sisterhood. The film touches on both the metaphorical and literal ideas of sisterhood, as well as the notions of how women can and should support each other. How they should help prepare one another for the struggles they all face, and how the limitations and structures upheld by the generations that have gone before can harm younger generations.

Hearing all the buzz around “Raw” may set up a perspective viewer with the wrong expectations. While it is certainly believable that some of the imagery may induce vomiting or cause some viewers to faint; it doesn’t do so in the way one might expect.

Furthermore, while “Raw” may be a French-language film that centers around a young female coming to terms with her sexuality; it doesn’t earn that description in the ways one might expect.

Overall, “Raw” defies expectation in some of the best ways. Horror fans shouldn’t expect a high-octane, jump-scare, gore-fest. Similarly, foreign film aficionados shouldn’t expect a more conventional art-house flick. “Raw” manages to take a bit from column A and column B, becoming something entirely its own; a feat familiar to any incoming college freshman or young adult. The film takes elements of who you were as a kid, living at home, and who you might want to be as an adult, living a suddenly more independent life, and combines them into the person you are for this phase of your life.

“Raw” paints a surprisingly — startlingly — accurate portrayal of a female, human, animal, going through a starkly recognizable, scary, transitional phase. Ultimately, it’s that liminal phase that is a horrifyingly necessary part of growing up.   

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