On experimentation, detachment, coming of age, and the fine young cannibals of the French collegiate veterinary community
Raw Focus World
Director: Julia Ducournau
Screenplay: Julia Ducournau
Starring: Garance Marillier, Rabah Nait Oufella, Ella Rumpf, Laurent Lucas and Joana Preiss
Rated R / 1 hour, 39 minutes / 2.35:1
(out of four)
Cannibalism is, I suppose, as good a stand-in for sexual coming-of-age as any other. Confused, guilty, unquenchable desire for human flesh is still confused, guilty, unquenchable desire for human flesh, no matter which impulse propels it.
So, Julia Ducournau's Raw is on fundamentally solid ground from the start. Pile a bunch of horny college kids into one intimate, sequestered campus, and virginal freshman Justine - and her budding journey toward cannibalistic self-actualization - fits right in. (Even if she, like all of us, is convinced she doesn't fit in at all.) She eyes her classmates with the same hunger we all did once. But while the rest of them are all having sex with each other - or trying their damnedest to do so - Justine (Garance Marillier) is only trepidatiously dipping her toe in. Testing whether this very specific desire is even real. Questioning her instincts. Experimenting a bit, when the opportunity arises, or when the desire is too much to suppress. I mean, if ever there were a time for experimentation, this is it.
Point being: the two things naturally align, and the film uses one to explore the other in ways that brutally underscore the primal nature of physical appetite, not to mention its volatility. Actual subject matter aside, Raw's energy is messy and frantic because nascent sexuality is messy and frantic. Whether divorced from its moral reality or not, there's a grounded human quality to its bloody conflation of the instinctive and the forbidden. The shedding of inhibitions mitigated by shame; the aggressive urges mitigated by moral conscience.
Ducournau makes sure all of this - from the allegorical framework down to the specific details that shape Justine's story - is underlined as neatly as possible. Prior to her feral cannibalistic awakening, Justine was a strict, lifelong vegetarian ... of course. She's going to school to become a veterinarian - her daily class routine consisting of animal flesh and meat and blood - because of course. She gets force-fed a rabbit kidney as a collegiate initiation ritual and then, suddenly, discovers she has a taste for meat ... of course. She develops a painful itchy rash - like a head-to-toe STD - after that first taste ... because of course. The whole idea of consuming meat is treated as a deeply ingrained taboo for her, in the same way sex might be at this age for those with certain religious or conservative backgrounds. (Perhaps it should go without saying that Justine is a virgin as well?)
And yet all that being said: Subtlety is not necessarily important to me, at least not as a rule; nothing wrong with big bold metaphors if you know what to do with them. The problem here is that Ducournau doesn't do justice to the allegory. This whole movie is a carnal experience - the line drawn so cleanly between the savage and the erotic - and yet it's the eroticism that's missing. Yes, it feels weird to say that a movie about eating other humans should be erotic ... but yeah, Raw definitely should be. Justine is overcome with, ostensibly, lust, and yet the movie never is. The camera isn't a wallflower, exactly, but it's not an active participant, either; it roams around the crowded hallways and dorm rooms, glides past sweaty bodies just enough to catch their scent, but it never makes a move. There's no thrust, nor anticipation - only observation. Cinema being an inherently voyeuristic medium is all well and good, but in this case it dulls the impact of Justine's passage from innocent to predator. Compare that to Claire Denis' cannibal film Trouble Every Day - fiercely erotic, discomfitingly restrained, savagely violent; what looked like a crime scene felt like an intimate moment, a tender, ravenous yearning slathered in blood. Or how about Bryan Fuller's Hannibal, which made all those person-based entrees and dressings and glazes so appealing, turning cannibalism into food porn. Through three glorious seasons, that show transferred Dr. Lecter's desires and made them, in a certain sense, our own. No matter how much the cool pink meat of the main course or the rich redness of the sauces reminded us of what was being eaten, it was too damn beautiful to register as sickening. As a visual, it was downright mouthwatering. Human meat? Man I don't care, break me off a piece of that.
But Raw has no such effect. It doesn't shy away from its violence - it has blood, guts, and severed body parts to spare, not to mention suggestive details and imagery peppered throughout - but neither does it evoke much from, or about, the violence. Its blood registers simply, plainly, as blood, not as consummation. Body parts register as scenery, rather than the climactic declaration of her conquest(s). There is no afterglow. For a movie about new, barely controllable compulsions, Raw is detrimentally passive at times. Its matter-of-factness emphasizes the clinical over the visceral. There's not much of a psychological/psychosexual orientation to the cinematic point-of-view, so we never really get into the character's headspace. Which makes the whole thing come across as a detached gross-out flick during moments when it should presumably be toeing some sort of line between the dueling sensations of guilt and desire.
What the film lacks in horror bonafides or corporeal expressiveness it makes up for with a wonderful lead performance and a vivid sense of place. Marillier warmly embodies the character's naivete and confusion - her fear of what is happening to her, her reticence to act on it, her conviction doing battle with her curiosity - and can, in specific moments, nicely flip a switch to something more aggressive, seductive, feral. Meanwhile, the school itself - an isolated, self-governed, barely-tamed mini-civilization, with hardly a grown-up in sight - is a living organism of its own. Pulsing, anxious, liberated, dangerous. There's plenty that's effective about the film, but it says a lot that the campus feels more viscerally charged in its non-violence than in the depiction of its core animalistic ideas. Raw's best, most unsettling details are not bloody or scary, yet feel agonizingly violent. One is the sound of the scratches on Justine's dry skin during her early allergic reaction - painful and persistent. The other is during a waxing scene, and involves a particularly stubborn adhesive - a sequence that not only conjures an uncomfortable physical twinge in the viewer but feels like a moment of true, trapped, surreal despair for the character. Moments like that suggest a really good body-horror film, an effect that is conspicuously missing elsewhere. In a lot of ways, Raw delivers what it promises - and no doubt it's competently executed - but for all the attention given to its "disturbing" content, it's more notable for what it's unable to get across than what it actually shows on screen. Ultimately this is an attractively made film that can't seem to fully embrace its own inherent hunger.