Raw capitalises on the darkest, most subdued aspects of humanity and forges a confoundingly relatable tale of teenage rebellion and conformity.
When talking about Raw, a film concerning bloodlust, murder and cannibalism, ‘relatable’ may not be the first word that comes to min. But Julia Ducournau’s visionary tale of selfhood and social identity manages to incorporate all of these issues and more into a surprisingly touching coming of age story that effectively blends awkward comedy with grotesque body horror – and somehow never feels out of tune with its central message. Despite the stories of audiences’ obscene physical and psychological reactions to the sickening film’s premiere at Cannes 2016, there are undoubtedly elements of Raw that show unparalleled understanding of humanity and our varying social dynamics, particularly in reference to maturing youths.
The story follows lifelong vegetarian Justine (Garance Marillier), who begins to develop an unsettling craving for blood after being forced to eat a rabbit’s liver as part of her college initiation. Her cravings start innocently: a piece of raw meat here, a self-inflicted wound there – but they soon grow much more dangerous. A thoroughly disturbing incident with her sister Alexia (Ella Rumpf) ignites her lust for human flesh, and it soon becomes clear that her newfound obsession is putting those closest to her in serious danger. Raw clearly tackles some truly disturbing and troubling themes, but the true meaning of the film is much more tender and poignant than you might imagine – a subtextual exploration of Justine’s integration into adulthood and the consequences that come with juvenile independence.
Moving away from your childhood home is never easy, but Raw takes this universal anxiety to another level and shows us both the dangers and consequences of teenage independence on an absurd scale. Justine is a young woman who just wants to fit in, and the film explores just how problematic this acquisition of independence can be. Whilst most (hopefully) won’t develop an overwhelming hunger for human flesh as a result of flying the nest, the feelings of fear and immense pressure that Justine displays are easily understood and made relatable. Ducournau clearly has a deeply personal comprehension of what it means to grow up in a society that can be so toxic and unwelcoming to people who don’t fit into the social concept of normality, and that shows through the way she makes her characters appear so real and grounded. Even in such an unsettling and unusual story, she manages to highlight the most fundamental aspects of humanity and creates a narrative that speaks so truly to this period of our lives.
Through their on-screen sisterhood, Marillier and Rumpf create an authentically honest family dynamic that elevates even the most refined of scripts. The way the two actresses understand and interact with each other is masterful, and the film’s central narrative simply wouldn’t work without such open transparency. Even the most talented of filmmakers would have trouble selling the concept of obsessive cannibalism, but Marillier and Rumpf manage to make it seem easy, taking every opportunity to develop these characters and their relationships with both themselves and each other.
It’s important to note that Raw isn’t solely a horror film. It incorporates elements of dark comedy, emotional family drama and touching moments of self-discovery along the way that make for a much richer and more meaningful viewing experience that can speak to an audience on many levels. The tone is never unclear thanks to the precisely constructed cinematography and stylish music choices, which give the film a distinct atmosphere that’s unlike any other of its style. There are very few films that even come close to matching the levels of grotesque brutality and heartfelt messaging that Raw displays – it truly is one of a kind, not restricted by the confines of any one genre.
Whether you’re looking to laugh, cry, or gouge your eyes out in disgust, Raw is the place to go. It’s not only an expertly crafted deconstruction of identity and selfhood, but also a deeply unsettling display of horror and bodily revulsion. Ducournau understands humanity in a way that very few filmmakers ever have, and the result is just as astounding as it is surprising: a film that transcends the boundaries of its own making and explores truly important universal issues through the lens of a stunning cinematic horror.