Justine (Garance Marillier), a lifelong vegetarian, arrives at veterinary college to study her family’s vocation. Timid and eager to not stand out, Justine goes with the flow and accepts various hazing rituals. When one such ritual involves her eating a rabbit’s kidney, though, she begins to question her meat-free lifestyle. Deviating from her dietary constraints, she finds herself dragged kicking and screaming into a bloody voyage of self-discovery…
Whether it’s Carrie getting her first period and proceeding to hone her telekinetic powers in murderous ways, or Buffy having to work through her high-school woes and fend off the undead in one fell swoop, female coming-of-age tales often reach for thematic richness by tapping into the supernatural or macabre. This isn’t always a guarantee of success – for every Heathers there are five Twilights – but those that work make one thing implicitly clear: tone is essential. Get this wrong and the whole thing falls apart. Nail it, though, and the disparate elements congeal into a riveting, rambunctious, resonant whole. Raw, Julia Ducournau’s riotous addition to the canon, is well and truly within the latter camp.
The unsettling opening unfolds with a dreamlike wordlessness, quietly observing an unidentified figure as they run out in front of the car and then calmly approach the wreckage. It’s not yet explicitly related to the narrative (and the true nature of its connection isn’t revealed until much later), but it keys you into the movie’s grooves with hypnotic ease. As a symbol, too, it’s indelible: in this protagonist’s journey, there are going to be casualties.
Not that you’d know it at first, though. When we first meet said protagonist, Justine (played, in a casting coup, by Garance Marillier), she’s meek and mild mannered: silently shuffled off to veterinary school by her parents and then herded through an initiation ritual with nonplussed ambivalence, she’s a young girl in identity limbo. Crowds amass the screen and drown our heroine, with the camera doing its utmost to stay tethered as it follows her path. Later, she drags her bedsheets over her to drown out the encroaching outside world, screaming and batting away anyone who tries to disturb her. Etched in Marillier’s deer-in-headlights expression is a yearning to feel comfortable and at place where her inability to fit in is frequently literalised.
This all changes once she eats a rabbit’s kidney. An instance of hazing going too far, this raw organ awakens something within this lifetime-vegetarian. At first it’s just a rash, but endless cravings force her to accept that she now has a taste for meat. Unfortunately, this newfound predilection rears its ugly head when she digests part of her sister, after which it becomes more and more difficult for her to curb her new impulse.
And it is during this stretch that the movie really takes flight. It’s a gruesome flight, that’s for sure, applying a Lynchian sense of sinister otherworldliness to the banal, basking in ruthless, raw sexuality and pursuing the kind of body horror to make Cronenberg squirm. But it’s one that soars with confidence, holding you in a vice-like grip and selling every single one of its symbolic whims through sheer force of will. Ducournau, with a stellar leading lady and whip-smart screenplay, exercises the control of a maestro, slowly lowering you into the surreal rabbit hole of Justine’s mindscape and ensuring that each shocking character twist is rooted in deeply understandable behaviour.
Heady as this may sound, though, Raw is an absolute trip to watch. The (sporadic) gore is gruesome, sure, but it’s counterbalanced by a keen sense of character and a wicked sense of humour. Some of the laughs stem from nervousness, some from awkward recognition and some from the sheer absurdity of everything, but all hit harder than pretty much anything else seen on screen this year. And even once the more visceral reactions it evokes have died down, the lavish thematic material leaves a lot to chew on.
All of which makes Raw a peculiar beast, indeed. It has the aesthetic and deliberate pacing of an arthouse curio, but it lands its blows with the bravado of a Hollywood blockbuster. It lingers in the mind like a future cult classic, but its central character drama is so perfectly realised that it cries out for a wider audience. It can have its Grand Guignol cake and literally eat it, while also culminating in a punchline that is at once gut-bustingly hilarious and thematically perfect.
This is a movie destined to find new, adoring audiences for decades to come.