Some people like their movie meals straight up, steak and potatoes and no funny business. But from where I’m sitting, there’s nothing quite as tasty and chewable as a film with layers and secrets. This is the realm where, often, genre films cross DNA with poetry, and it’s where the new French film Raw roots itself.
Not that there isn’t steak on the menu. Director Julia Ducournau’s first featurelength film is being sold as a horror film, but that doesn’t come close to categorizing it. It plays instead like a Jane Campion movie (think Sweetie or Holy Smoke or In the Cut) writhing through a painful menstrual contraction. We first meet Justine (Garance Marillier) as an unpretty, shy freshman from a stridently vegetarian family being driven by her parents to a school where her older sister also studies. The nature of this very, very strange school is revealed in fragments, but essentially it’s a remote veterinary college with a maniacal hazing culture.
The film’s whole setup is an expressive, almost surreal placeholder for every kind of identity crisis, loss of autonomy and sexual uncertainty. In the middle of the freshmen’s first night, masked pranksters trash their rooms, yank the undressed newbies out of bed and make them crawl across the campus to a blistering drugs-sex-booze rave. On the first day of classes, they’re bucketed with what appears to be horse blood by the upperclassmen (for a class photo!). None of this is comfortable for the misfit-y Justine, but amid dog autopsies and equestrian rectal exams, she tries to conform. (Her sister’s already a snotty beast of an upperclassman.) As part of their ordeal, Justine and her classmates are all fed raw rabbit organs. She refuses but then relents and predictably pukes — and also turns an unforeseen corner.
Privately, the pressure changes her, and her meticulously cultivated veggie-ness gives way to a fascination with flesh, in any condition, alive or dead, off any animal. As we’ve all given way, of course, one way or another. Clearly, the sudden carnivorous conversion is also suggestive of real-life dilemmas. Justine’s sense of individuality — her identity, her diet, her control over her own body— is under siege from the get-go. Justine admits to still being a virgin, hesitantly discovering that sex is just another way to mix with flesh — but it becomes another shard of her self under attack. Justine’s body begins to change as well, in ways she doesn’t like.
There are clear resonances here with eating disorders: When she’s overheard vomiting some horrible gout of her own hair in a school bathroom, another girl helpfully, bulimically, advises her to use two fingers, it’s easier that way. All of this reaches its first apex of lurid oddness when Justine’s sister Alexia (Ella Rumpf) insists on hot-waxing Justine’s hairy crotch — another bid to render her a normal girl. While desperately deploying scissors, Alexia’s middle finger is lopped off. Alexia faints in a puddle of blood, and a frayed Justine takes the moment to lick, then nibble, then completely chow down on the severed digit. That’s when Alexia wakes up.
Honestly, sometimes the movie’s lust for outrageousness makes hay out of its body-politics syllogisms. But we get an articulate vision of a woman under absurd siege, from within and without. Cannibalism, as genre movies have taught us for decades, can be capitalism in extremis, but it also confounds the borders we’ve set between the uses we put to flesh. Vampirism is most often equated with sexual predation and seduction, but in Raw the flesh-eating morphs from the surrender of feminine autonomy into a kind of hunger that transcends sex and food and becomes existential. Justine cannot have sex without biting and trying to eat whomever she’s with.
Eventually, Ducournau’s story bends the sisterly drama into a screaming family psychopathology that leaves many questions, even metaphoric ones, unanswered. It’s a troublesome, crazy film, and may well leave viewers with a Rorschach-y variety of feminist reactions: Is it interrogating oppression and exploitation, or manifesting them? Are its symbolic ideas apt, or too nasty to resonate? Is a woman’s vexed relationship with flesh — animal or human— kind of a conservative obsession, or is it the gender-plural way forward? For unavoidable reasons, men may well be simply discomfited, and that, ultimately, may be statement enough.
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