Joyce Glasser reviews Raw (April 7, 2017) Cert. 18, 98 min.
Raw is a French-Belgium co-production where France contributes two talented actresses, protagonist Garance Marillier and supporting actress Ella Rumpf and an equally attractive and talented first-time feature writer/director: Julia Ducournau. For its part, Belgium provides Liège veterinary school, complete with (lest you think Ducournau made it up) its horse strung up to a hanging harness and running on a treadmill.
Actually, Belgium contributes something else. Last year, bones uncovered in caves near Namur bore marks of cannibalism dating back to Neanderthals, that infamous human subspecies that became extinct some 40,000 years ago. Before they died off completely, there was some interbreeding with our ancestors, Homo sapiens, and, it is thought that some 4% of DNA in today’s Europeans has been inherited from Neanderthals. Bear that in mind if you go see Ducournau’s Raw, a well-crafted, atmospheric black comedy/horror film that hides a need to shock behind a coming-of-age metaphor.
The film takes place almost entirely at the veterinary college where the symbolically named (think Marquis de Sade) Justine (Marillier), a brilliant student, is joining her older sister Alexia as a freshman. The college is the family’s Alma Mater, so the sisters’ vocation seems predetermined. While the college is the main setting, the film is book-ended by two scenes with the parents that are key to appreciating the twists in the story.
On the drive to Liège, Justine, witnesses a car crash on the secondary road they are taking and, out the back window of her parents’ car, makes out a woman approaching the driver’s seat. You will be returning to that road later in the film, but first, Justine, her father (Laurent Lucas), and her mother (Joana Preiss) stop off for lunch at a self-service restaurant. Justine, who is thin and pale, orders mashed potatoes as she is vegetarian. After a few forkfuls, she spits out a piece of sausage, horrified at the sight. This will not be the first disgusting thing she spits out in the course of the film, so if you’ve closed your eyes at this, you’re in the wrong cinema. Justine’s mother is not only upset, but livid, and goes to complain to the manager.
Justine’s sister should have been at the car park to meet her sister, but, determined to be independent, Justine says her good-byes and heads to her dormitory for a good night’s sleep. That, however, is impossible as it’s initiation week, when the college transforms into one big, wild American-style fraternity party – Bad Neighbours eat-your-heart-out.
This section of the film serves an important role in threading the needle that will weave imagery to suggest the animal in man. It might be important, but these scenes are nonetheless, loud and tedious as Justine is herded through the crowded, ritualistic rave. At the end of a large hall she sees the back of her sister, Alexia (Rumpf, a real French beauty who looks like Béatrice Dalle in Betty Blue, but even prettier) in hot pants and tights, grinding like a pro from the South Bronx.
One of the more unpleasant rites-of-passage Justine must endure is eating a raw duck kidney, which she initially refuses. She reminds the ‘elders’ that her sister, too, is vegetarian and would have been excused from this ritual. But, to her shock, Alexia has eaten the raw meat and steps forward to encourage her sister to do the same.
The sisters are close, but sibling rivalry begins to manifest itself after a bit of girlish fun in Alexia’s room. The fun part ends (rather improbably) with a scissors accidentally cutting of her finger leaving Alexia screaming for Justine to salvage it (as veterinary students, she would know to put it on ice) before passing out cold. When Justine finds the finger, however, she seems to forget about her sister lying on the floor. Examining it as though it were a specimen in a science class, Justine’s intellectual curiosity turns into carnivorous spontaneity as she suddenly takes a bit….
In the modern-Gothic setting of the veterinary school, with its basement rooms, hanging carcasses, blood-splattered initiation robes and the daily dissections of dead animals, Justine comes of age and realises she doesn’t need anyone’s help, least of all her sister’s. When Alexia notices that Justine is attracted to her handsome, but gay student roommate, Adrien (Rabah Nait Oufella), there’s trouble ahead. It’s not difficult to see that her penchant for raw flesh parallels the awakening of her sexual appetite. It’s not the most novel idea, but you’ve never seen it carried out so literally.
You can watch the film trailer here: