Justine (Garance Marillier) is a meek freshman in college, just leaving home for the first time when we meet her in the film. She is planning on studying to be a veterinarian at a prestigious veterinary school, following in her sister’s footsteps. The students enrolled in the veterinary program alongside her have developed an almost fraternity-like mentality. The older students in the program constantly haze the first year students as a sort of initiation ritual, one particularly nasty tradition involves each of the students consuming a raw rabbit kidney. This is a huge problem, as Justine is a vegetarian. After refusing to eat it initially, Justine eventually complies once her sister Alexia (Ella Rumpf) begins to berate her. This is the first time Justine has ever consumed meat and soon enough she begins craving more, lusting for it. Not much time passes until Justine learns that animal meat won’t satisfy her cravings and that she needs to feast on something a little more taboo.
(Hint: it’s human flesh.)
RAW is director Julia Ducournau’s debut feature film, and you’d be hard pressed to realize that. With RAW she has already proven herself to be a fucking powerhouse. This film is absolutely fantastic, it’s gripping, it’s horrifying, it’s even funny at times. The film is so many different things at once, and Ducournau has a lot to say with here, especially concerning the issues of sexuality, body image, and addiction.
What is so impressive about RAW is just how unabashedly brutal it is, and this isn’t even concerning the obvious moments of cannibalism. Justine comes to the school a virgin, and almost immediately she is deemed an outsider for it. Alongside that, the hazing she must endure reaches borderline torture levels at some points, and when Justine isn’t busy trying to complete these herculean tasks, she is shunned by both her peers and her teachers. Outside of her one friendship in the form of her roommate Adrien (Rabah Nait Oufella), Justine is totally alone. Not even her sister Alexia is a source of comfort for Justine, as their already rocky relationship is made all the more tumultuous once her nasty case of cannibalism kicks in.
This isolation that Justine experiences serve to only push her farther and farther towards the edge, motivating her to her indulge in her innermost primal and carnal desires. For most college students, those carnal desires would manifest themselves in the form of sex, and the kids at Justine’s college sure have a lot of it. But not Justine, no, her desire is human flesh. Ducournau makes this biting (no pun intended) parallel fairly obvious throughout the course of the film, but that only makes it all the more effective.
Marillier’s performance as Justine is simply breathtaking. Her journey from acquiescence to firm independence is beautiful and terrifying to watch, and Marillier knocks it out of the park. At a moment’s notice Marillier is able to transform Justine from a character who’s sympathetic to one that is genuinely disturbing, which helps give her character a sense of unpredictability. Marillier’s chemistry with Alexia actress Ella Rumpf is truly entertaining to watch, as the two sisters constantly find themselves in conflict with one another. Oufella’s performance as Adrien is solid as well, as he acts as Justine’s rock, her one friend she can rely on. The trio often finds themselves onscreen together, and the dynamic is portrayed wonderfully.
Despite what the Toronto International Film Festival would have you think, RAW is not a hyper-violent, disgustingly gruesome film that will make you pass out in horror. But it’s not exactly a walk in the park either. Body horror goes hand-in-hand with cannibalism, and Ducournau executes it marvelously here. The violence in RAW is not over-the-top, Ducournau smartly keeps the violence grounded, intentionally avoiding gallons of blood in favor of making the violence more tangible and effective. The fact that Ducournau is able to make something like scratching a rash feel horrifying and disgusting is impressive, never mind when she indulges on the gross concept of consuming human flesh. There are master levels of body horror on display here, and Ducournau’s reluctance to go overboard with the violence serves only to emphasize the moments when she does indulge in the gore.
The film’s score, composed by Ben Wheatley regular Jim Williams, is fantastic, as it quietly disappears when it needs to, only to rear its ugly head with a jarring loudness once the characters begin to descend into madness. The score is chaotic and erratic and suits the tone and subject matter of the film perfectly.
RAW is a masterfully executed genre film, giving horror fans some delightfully stylish scares, as well as having a deeper meaning behind it all. With its great cast and stellar directing, RAW is a triumph, and will leave your mind with something to chew on long after the film is over.
Okay, that pun was intended.