Holy shit. Holy shit y’all. Holy shit.
Raw is Julia Ducournau’s first feature. It’s the sort of first feature people dream of making. The sort of debut that means something. It’s a French language film the screened in the UK with the standard Universal Pictures ident at the lead, that don’t just happen here. Not without good reason anyway.
And like hell is Raw a good enough reason. It’s a film which manages to never make a wrong step throughout its entire running time, despite the fact that it takes some weird steps. It’s a coming of age, college, cannibal movie. It’s horrifying and comedic and dramatic and weird. There’s a doctor who gets a monologue about body shaming and a professor who makes very clear he despises our lead’s natural talent. After this scene she will throw up a ball of the hair that she chews on as a nervous tic. A fellow student will tell her that using two fingers brings everything up easier.
It don’t feel shocking when it’s happening to you. Sure, the plot, but it’s not self-conscious, it doesn’t call attention to itself, it’s appropriate. Every choice being made is in aid of our characters. We are not told this is bravura filmmaking. The first scenes: a car crash, an attempt to get a good vegetarian meal at a buffet play out with restraint; locked off cameras, a subdued soundtrack. The flick builds upon itself, by the time you realise you’re watching something bravura you’ve already sunk in.
Garance Marillier plays Justine, a first year student to a seemingly prestigious veterinary school. Her older sister Alexia (Ella Rumpf) is already in attendance. Her parents are both alumni. People expect big things. Despite asking to be roomed with a girl they put her in a dorm with Rabah Naït Oufella’s Adrian, because he’s gay, and as he says, ‘It’s the same thing to them.’ There’s some hazing rituals and some classroom hijinks, but more The Tribe than National Lampoon.
Then Justine discovers a taste for human flesh. Things get weird. Lengths are gone to in order to satisfy these cravings. Of course it’s a metaphor. For, like, sex, and power, and bodily autonomy. Our ownership over these things, and the shame that comes with facing them. About our divergence from culturally accepted norms and how we come to terms with ‘abnormality’. There’s a scene where she reacts to some non-consensual sexual contact by taking a chunk out of the dude, hard not to be pro-cannibal when it comes to that.
There’s too much here, Imma talk about Ruben Impens’ cinematography, which is rooted in experientialism, tapping the lens into the mind of our lead. Or Jim Williams’ score that lilts and wanders, synth and harpsichord, an expansion on his work for A Field In England, epic and sublime. Or the work done with the animals in the joint, both alive and dead, their anatomy becoming alien and monstrous; detached from their natural surroundings their shapes read different, there is an image the film stays for a while, a horse on a treadmill, I’m sure it is nothing out of the ordinary, it seems from the otherworld.
If I have a criticism, it’ll be about the representation of Adrian’s sexuality. The film’s clearly playing with it on some level, gay men being this unattainable figure in the straight girl sexual gaze, and the way Ducournau allows the camera to play with this is so juicy, but he ain’t never allowed to own his sexuality. Which wouldn’t be a problem, but as the plot turns to maximise it, the gets shut out of any exploration of that desire. It weakens the film, because unable to handle the juxtaposition in perspective it instead turns to shutting him out.
Maybe I’m infatuated by its weirdness, because weirdness is so often accompanied by a narrative looseness, yet there ain’t a frame out of place here. It moves between these disparate tones all loose and liquid, making never a single expected move, why do they all work? How can take an act, let alone something so deliberately confrontational, and turn it into comedy, and horror, and bonding, and empowerment, and alienation; and put all these things right next to each other and say, ‘Here. Here is what it all is.’ And then the audience sits back at the credits and thinks, ‘Yeah. Yep, you pretty much nailed it.’
Because they did. They pretty much nailed it.
Image courtesy Universal Pictures International