If art can be said to be as much about boldly confronting the most forbidden of universal desires as it is refreshing our awareness of desires we already widely acknowledge, then the horror genre is uniquely positioned to fulfill that mandate, with its potential to plumb the depths of human irrationality in ways other genres might approach with kid gloves. Combine that with horror’s frequent reliance on the supernatural, and the possibilities for making metaphorical connections between cinematic fantasy and the real world increase tenfold. Nevertheless, it can be a bit disappointing if a filmmaker is too heavy-handed with his/her metaphors, thus leaving viewers with little work left to do, since the filmmaker has already done all the mental gymnastics for us.
That, alas, is the one snag that prevents Raw from achieving true genre greatness. Writer/director Julia Ducournau’s debut feature is a coming-of-age tale written in blood, one that equates cannibalism with carnality, filtered through young veterinary student Justine’s (Garance Marillier) growing awareness of her own sexuality during initiation rites at her college. But the metaphor, already a fairly obvious one from the start, never really goes anywhere unexpected once you get the idea about 20 minutes in. There are no surprises to be found in seeing Justine transform from her previous introverted self into a liberated party animal. That arc has already been preordained by the film’s grand metaphor, and Ducournau doesn’t quite offer enough to distract us from that gnawing sense of inevitability.
Richer characterizations might have helped. But Justine’s vegetarianism—encouraged by her parents, who raised her that way—seems at odds with her willingness to carve up animals. It’s a contradiction Ducournau doesn’t appear all that interested in reconciling, clearly taken with the opportunities for copious graphic bloodletting such a perverse irony affords. Nor do we really get much of a sense of her home life before college, which might have strengthened the contrast between her and her wilder older sister, Alexia (Ella Drumpf)—who is also attending the same prestigious veterinary school—and thus given a deeper resonance to the character’s eventual attempts to break out of her own shell. In short, there’s barely a sense that Justine herself has much of an inner life outside the events of this particular film. Like Raw itself to a certain degree, Justine exists almost entirely as a self-contained metaphor, with Ducournau even willing to shift around a gay character’s sexuality just to satisfy her master plan. And even then, when the film makes a rather jarring shift toward emphasizing sisterly bonds, one isn’t entirely sure Ducournau has as firm a grasp on that plan as one would hope.
Still, there are enough moments in Raw where the grand metaphor resonates—moments that correspond vividly enough to the universal experience of trying to both fit in and discover oneself during one’s freshman year at college—to keep one emotionally invested throughout. As an image-maker, Ducournau, in her debut feature, shows formidable chops, with a few feverishly inventive dream sequences and a strong sense of color-coding to offer consistent visual interest (naturally, the color red is prominently emphasized in Ruben Impens’s cinematography). And then there is Marillier, who so persuasively conveys the character’s initial innocence and eventual sexual voraciousness that she almost manages to lend cohesiveness to a film that, as admirable as it is in having something other than bloody outré shocks on its mind, ultimately perhaps leans too hard on its conceptual aspects for it to be fully satisfying.
Director: Julia Ducournau
Writer: Julia Ducournau
Starring: Garance Marillier, Ella Rumpf, Rabah Nait Oufella, Laurent Lucas, Joana Preiss, Bouli Lanners
Release Date: March 10, 2017
Kenji Fujishima is a freelance film critic, contributing to Slant Magazine, Brooklyn Magazine, The Playlist and the Village Voice. He is also Deputy Editor of Movie Mezzanine. When he’s not watching movies and writing and editing film criticism, he’s trying to absorb as much music, art, and literature as possible. He has not infrequently been called a “culture vulture” for that reason.