Image: Movie poster for the cannibal thriller Raw. Image Source.
Here is something that I learned about myself this week: if I happen across a description for a French film that includes the words “feminist” and “cannibal”, I will mark a night out in my diary for that film immediately. And despite the overtly hokey details that may have drawn gore aficionados to the screening of Raw (a sick bag on entry filled with gummy candy shaped like dismembered body parts, plastic strip curtains spattered with red paint at the entrance of the theatre), Raw proved to be one of the most masterful and rewarding film of its gruesome ilk that I have ever seen.
To be clear, this is not a film that I would recommend to anybody with an easily unsettled gut or anybody who reels at the sight of blood and flesh on screen. When a press release advertises a film with the word “cannibal” in the description, you take them at their word that the audience will not be walking out unscathed from the experience. Fingers and skulls are gnawed at, bloody corpses are depicted, and more than a few dead dogs are thrown in the mix for good measure.
Written and directed by Julia Ducournau, the film follows the story of Justine (Garance Marillier), a resolute vegetarian and socially-underdeveloped wunderkind as she navigates her first year of veterinary school. Amidst wordless, surreal scenes of hazing rituals, Justine is confronted with the challenge to eat a rabbit kidney and forced into the act by her older sister, Alexia (Ella Rumpf), a senior at the college who has evidently been alienated from her family for many years. The act of consuming this kidney sends Justine into a feverish spiral, piquing a desire to devour raw flesh, culminating in an insatiable craving for human meat.
Whilst the film does not abstain from enjoying the cruel and confronting violence that defines the horror and gore genres, it does so against a background that is so surreal and consistently uncomfortable that it doesn’t seem to break the laws of context so blatantly. Despite the seeming impossibility of such a statement, Raw’s violence doesn’t lend itself to the shock-value of Americanised horror but instead entrenches that violence in a sophisticated background that makes it intrinsically less abhorrent.
After all, what’s a little cannibalism in a world where girls are pushed into rooms and forced to fuck male students, where younger students are consistently demoralised and humiliated by older students in grotesque ways, and where girls are asked to “slut it up” and show their tits during the seemingly endless onslaught of underground raves?
Justine’s proclivity for cannibalism doesn’t strike the viewer as abominably violent because Ducournau skilfully explores so many other forms of violence in the same setting.
Still, the question of why an audience should feel so compelled to engage in watching a full 90 minutes of such confronting gore is a fairly legitimate one. Raw is important because it is almost unique in its genre for placing a flawed and tortured female at the forefront. This is a horror movie where the female protagonist isn’t slain by a masked killer in the street or tortured to death with an axe but rather, she is granted the agency of a narrative that hinges on her own demons.
In a world of television and film violence that exploits women only as fodder for fetishist story lines involving their gruesome homicides (I’m lookin’ at you, Law & Order S.V.U), Raw stands apart as a narrative that allows Justine not only to hold the (metaphorical) knife, but also the discovery of her own sexuality; Justine is learning sexually and really quite literally, to consume men. This is a coming-of-age film, after all.
Garance Marillier’s performance is also one to be applauded, with a fresh-faced look reminiscent of Saoirse Ronan that manages to convey all the ingénue of a new-born deer, she delivers a complex performance that traipses adroitly into the depiction of a detached predator.
All mention of cannibalism aside, this is a film that rests on its ability to portray a surreal and desolate environment, where the fervour of newfound authority and adolescent desires run amok; it expertly manages to assault the audience like a nauseating hallucination. And for that, I give it four fingers out of five.
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