A surprisingly touching and interesting story that perfectly balances horror, family drama, coming-of-age and a deft touch of black comedy, Ducournau's debut is a dish best served raw.
Watching Raw, there’s something so striking about what you’re witnessing on screen. Since the turn of the century, the horror genre has taken a heavy smashing. Very rarely do the masses get engaging, cerebral, smart horrors. Instead, the genre has turned into a graveyard of junkfood, full of cheap jumpscares and tasteless gore. Julia Ducournau’s first feature length directoral effort immediately sets out to distance itself from the shlock we’re used to and does not let up until the final credits.
The film follows the journey of Justine (Garance Marillier) a young student who’s just starting out at vet school. During the unrelenting hazing rituals that the ‘rookies’ are subjected to, Justine (who happens to be a vegetarian) begins to form a unsatiated lust for flesh. Ducournau, who acts as both director and writer in this instance, held no prisoners when launching into her debut. Tackling one of cinemas most taboo subjects, with a script that took her several years to write, she masterfully handles her story. Unlike other horror films that we’ve become accustomed to, she is unusually delicate and interesting in her portrayal of something quite horrifying to behold. Instead of focusing on the death and gore of the subject, it steers us into what can only be described as a deep and intricate character study of someone coming-of-age. Ducournau has maintained her stance on this film as not being a horror, but a story of a girl who discovers herself by chance of cannibalism. On paper this sounds absolutely ludicrous but as the story unfolds and the layers are peeled back, we see the journey of the once timid Justine, form into something entirely different by the end. She manages to interweave the story of a girl coming to grips and understanding her sexuality, her place in the world and also her own character in admittedly shocking situations. Part-drama, part-body horror, part dark comedy, Ducournau’s deft touch as a writer adds an interesting angle to a tired genre and a sub-genre that has more often than not, derailed into shlocky gore-fests.
As a visual piece, Raw proves that Ducournau is no amateur. Having helmed both short films and TV episodes, she comes in with an assured hand and a clear vision. The vivid flourishes of colour (namely of the crimson variety) are wonderfully juxtaposed with the drab, oppressive greys of the school’s campus. Equally as impressive, as Justine descends further and further into the rabbit hole, many of the scenes become more and more disorientating and jumbled. The scenes which are set in parties become louder and more chaotic, the camera weaves between sweaty young bodies behind a backdrop of crashing music. Despite this, we never feel that we’ve lost where we are in Justine’s world and she provides the anchor and emotional hook in this deeply unsettling situation.
Due to its subject, it would be easy for the characters to end up feeling distant, or non-relatable, or even worse, detestable. It’s to her credit that the inexperienced Marillier (also her feature-length debut) manages to completely subvert our expectations of how to view someone in her predicament. Partly also to do with the beauty of the script, Justine’s arc from the timid and inward yet incredibly smart young girl to what she becomes at the end of the film is both fantastic and oddly relatable. Never once when you’re watching it do you feel to condemn her or be disgusted by her. In Marillier’s portrayal of Justine, we only sympathise with her and what she’s going through. Through no fault of her own, she’s thrust into this challenging, hedonic world over which she has very little, if any, control. This is only accentuated by the characters that surround her. Older sister Alexia (Ella Rumpf) who also happens to go to the same vet school, is at first what every older sibling is like. Engaging as one of the ‘taskmasters’ in the hazing rituals, she is both her younger sister’s bully but also her compass. As she becomes more and more entwined into the story, we get this beautiful family drama about the bonding of two sisters which oddly somewhat pays homage to John Fawcett’s under-seen ‘Ginger Snaps’. Justine’s gay roomate Adrien (Rabah Nait Oufella) also plays a key role in her ‘awakening’ and adds a layer of nuance and delicacy to the story that would’ve otherwise have been lost without his inclusion.
Ducournau had stated, since the films release and screenings at various festivals, that she was influenced by the likes of David Cronenberg and Dario Argento and their fascination with body horror and its absolutely apparent in her strong debut feature. With such a strong understanding of the genre, she’s surely one to watch for the future.
Raw (2017), directed by Julia Ducournau, is distributed in the UK by Focus World. Certificate 18.