When a young vegetarian undergoes a carnivorous hazing ritual at vet school, an unbidden taste for meat begins to grow in her.
Julia Ducournau’s French arthouse horror flick “Raw” begins with a serene moment: a long, empty road at dusk, heavy clouds hanging low and threatening to burst, a lone figure walking towards us quietly in the distance. A car appears, heading towards her. This moment of tranquility is jarringly interrupted when the stranger leaps in front of the car and smashes against it violently, making it swerve into a tree. As the vehicle emits dying fumes, the figure slowly gets up, seemingly unscathed, approaches the car, looks inside… Does the victim become the perpetrator?
This defiance of expectations, already quite palpable within the first two minutes, is just one of the many goals first-time feature director Julia Ducournau achieves with aplomb in “Raw”, her darkly funny, beautifully shot, deeply disturbing and unbearably sad cinematic treatise on adolescence. Propelled by a powerful central performance from the enigmatic Garance Marillier, who exudes both tenderness and savagery, “Raw” lives up to its title, built on stark contrasts and uncompromising truths about humanity. With echoes of David Cronenberg’s early “body of horror” oeuvre and Michael Haneke’s clinical dissections of humanity, “Raw” reveals what we all secretly already know: all vegetarians are actually cannibals. It’ll also make you think twice before digging into that medium-rare steak.
After the effective prolog, we meet Justine (Marillier), having a difficult time being vegetarian, meatballs finding their way into her mashed potatoes at a quiet, grimy-looking cafe. Her supportive parents (Joana Preiss and Laurent Lucas in small-but-crucial roles) drop her off at a desolate vet boarding school, where – to quote the synopsis – a “carnivorous hazing ritual,” led by masked seniors, finds its way into her quiet, grimy-looking dorm room at night. Animal-like, on all fours, Justine is forced to crawl through air ducts towards what the initiators refer to as “freedom.” When Adrien (Rabah Nait Oufella), a fellow student, notices her fear, he reassures her, “Hey, it’s just a game. What do you think could happen?” Famous last words.
Justine’s sister, Alex (Elia Rumpf), who has been at this school for a year now, shows up at the initiation party. After a brief moment of reconciliation, she takes Justine to a pitch-black animal morgue, effectively filmed with Alex’s flashlight, embalmed creatures in giant jars materializing every time its beam flicks on. In a striking contrast to those grisly images, framed pictures of former valedictorians hang on the walls, among them Mom and Dad – it runs in the family.
Tension builds slowly but effectively: a scene that pays homage to THAT “Carrie” moment, here acts as a catalyst for the proceeding events, as opposed to the Grand Guignol finale in the Brian De Palma classic. The fraternity-like initiators, who prefer to be called elders (“veterans” in French; play on words here – veterinarian/veteran) force Justine to eat raw rabbit kidneys as part of the hazing. This awakens an appetite in Justine, previously suppressed by her family’s insistence on being vegetarian, a craving that she has to satisfy, be it a shawarma at a local gas station, raw salmon as a midnight snack… or her sister’s sliced-off finger. Upon witnessing the gruesome act, Alex looks shocked… but for the wrong reason, which I will let you discover.
“Raw” is a deft examination of sociological tendencies, such as herd mentality, the effect of peer pressure on a naive young soul, female oppression and empowerment. “I bet a raped monkey suffers like a woman,” Justine argues at lunch, defiantly standing behind her argument that a raped monkey and a raped woman are no different. Her humanity then gets stripped away, (skin) layer by layer, until she is forced to resort to her own most animalistic tendencies. “An animal that’s tasted human flesh isn’t safe,” Justine’s father says. “If he likes it, he’ll bite again.”
Which leads to another important theme in Julia Ducournau’s deceptively minimalist film: genetics, and whether we can escape what’s inherently embedded in our DNA. As Justine comes of age and to term with her awakening sexuality, she begins to hunger the flesh in more ways than one. On one hand, the effect of her ecosystem certainly plays a part in this violent change, but towards the end, doubt settles in, until the film leaves you with a sense of inevitability that resonates for days after.
Ducournau sure loves Cronenberg – and that’s meant as a compliment. She never directly mirrors the great helmer’s literal dissections of humans, but rather pays subtle homage: in both of the directors’ work, it’s the vomit, excrement, pubic hair, urine and, yes, flesh (all exposed in great abundance in “Raw,” so stay clear, sensitive ones!) that makes us human, our primal instincts taking precedence over rationality. Exploring juxtapositions of warmth and beauty vs. clinical coldness, human vs. animal, light whimsy vs. visceral psycho-horror, Ducornau proves to be a more worthy Cronenberg successor than his own son Brandon did with the lurid, emotionally-vacuous “Antiviral.”
The young director fills her debut with striking images that burrow their way into your head – and under your skin. A horse gallops on a treadmill in magnificent slow-motion. Justine vomits a seemingly endless strand of hair or mane. A car horn won’t stop blaring for a very nasty reason. Justine gets trapped under bedsheets, suffocating in her own skin. Her first, multi-colored, bloody sexual experience, swiftly followed by another one of brutal intensity (along with some eyeball-licking, I kid you not), may count as one of the highlights of the film. The score is great too; I’d like to point out one song, in particular, Orties’ “Plus Putes Que Toutes Les Putes,” the rapping French girls wiping the floor with Eminem with their, ahem, daring lyrics.
There are moments of levity amidst the darkness, such as when Justine gets caught for stealing a burger, or her first Brazilian wax experience, or when she tells her sister, “You taste like curry” – or especially when she and a guy get splashed, head-to-toe, in blue and yellow paint respectively, then thrust into a room, “seven-minutes-in-heaven-style,” and told not to come out until they’re both green. Marillier, who appears in nearly every scene, leads us through the tonal changes with her utterly believable performance.
A cautionary tale above about the perils of adolescence and sending your kids to college, the film should only be regarded metaphorically, and not subjected to too much scrutiny. It never really delves into the minute details of what it means to become a vet. It doesn’t really deal with the moral repercussions that the girls must experience after their hideous acts (one murder of an innocent couple in the middle of the film, in particular, gets dismissed, rendering it that much more horrific). Ducournau is not interested in explaining why, of all places, this vet hospital is so frat-like, harboring depraved human beings. Nor does she explain how exactly Justine managed to never notice the scars on an important character’s chest.
Never mind all that. Just go with “Raw”’s demented flow, and it will eat you… raw.
“Raw” opens in Dallas Friday, March 24th