In a Q&A session after the screening at Monster Fest 2016 ended, director Julia Ducournau explained that Raw was a film about becoming human. Horror films, she said, often allow us to express taboo desires and hidden fears, whether it be through visceral violence, psychological torture or supernatural metaphor. With Raw, Monster Fest’s 2016 opening night feature, Ducournau expertly uses the language of cinema to penetrate some of the core aspects of what it means to be a human being.
Justine (Garance Marillier) is heading off to study veterinary science at a prestigious vet school. She’s following in the footsteps of her parents and sister Alexia (Ella Rumpf), whom she’ll meet up with when she arrives. Justine is a vegetarian, virgin, and very opposed to doing drugs. It comes as a bit of a shock to her, then, when she and the other ‘rookies’ (first years) are put through the vicious hazing rituals by their ‘elders’ (sophomores). These rituals include eating rabbit kidney, getting plastered at claustrophobic parties, and—though this may be a private ritual between Justine and Alexia—indulging in raw, human flesh.
Marillier plays Justine with a kind of wide-eyed naïveté, a blank canvas gradually splattered with paint. The film tracks her transformation to humanity, via some pretty monstrous imagery.
Ducournau is an auteur. Her artistic vision shows how sensations can take hold of us, even change us. Early on in the film, Justine contracts a nasty rash that spreads in red blotches all over her body. A vivid scene shows Justine scratching the rash, raking her fingernails up and down the nasty eczema. The sound of scratching is loud and intimate close-ups manage to convey the way Justine is giving in to a primal urge. It’s these kinds of weaknesses (or strengths, depending on how you look at it), that define Justine’s humanity.
Composer Jim Williams (known for scoring several of Ben Wheatley’s films) is embedded in the film’s narrative, giving each character their own theme when they appear on screen. While Marillier is the star of the film, her roommate Adrian (Rabah Nait Oufella) gives an aggressive, comic performance and as Justine’s sister, Ella Rumpf is a complicated figure who grapples with her commitment to her sister, as well as how far she has already fallen down the film’s bloody, twisting rabbit hole.
Raw evokes in its audience the sensations it displays on screen. This is what cinema is about. Ducournau’s film is a huge triumph, again reminding us why great cinema begins and ends in France.
Tom Bensley is a freelance writer in Melbourne who reviews anything he attends, watches or reads. It’s a compulsion, really. Follow him @TomAliceBensley.