When Raw premiered at Cannes in 2016, it quickly became known amongst audiences as the ‘French, cannibalistic horror’ that led some to leave screenings in search of the nearest bathroom to relieve their nausea. To allow Raw to be talked about only as a shocking feature, for it to be remembered solely for the physical reactions it provoked in viewers, however, would be to disservice it hugely. Julia Ducornau’s daring debut is far more than an exercise in body horror. Rather, it is a truly unique take on a genre that has been done hundreds of times before: the coming-of-age drama. The story of a young woman forging an identity for herself is not exactly a new concept, for the Romantic and Victorian novels of Jane Austen and the Brontë sisters were often centred around the same subject, but never has it been tackled in the way that it is by Ducornau. With Raw, Ducornau takes the moment in a teenage girl’s life in which she verges on womanhood and uses it to craft a truly horrifying piece, in which carnal desires are explored in the most unexpected of manners.
The protagonist of Ducornau’s chiller is Justine, a lifelong vegetarian whose arrival at veterinary school is not without a few rude awakenings. Justine, who is played by Garance Marillier with a fascinating mix of burgeoning prowess and wide-eyed innocence, is initially shaken by the relentless hazing rituals that take place at her new home. Barely hours after she has begun to settle into her dormitory than she, along with her roommate Adrien (Rabah Naït Oufella), is forced out of bed and hauled into something of an initiation ceremony hosted by veterinary ‘elders’. So far, this could be a traditional film about the first steps of college, right? At first, it may appear as a tale focused on the dangers of peer pressure but, once Justine is made to swallow an uncooked rabbit kidney (by her own sister, nonetheless), Raw makes it clear that its approach to taking on the formative years of a girl on the edge of adulthood will be unlike anything we have seen before. From this point onwards, the film becomes a compelling exploration of Justine’s newly awakened desires and follows her as she develops an appetite for flesh, to be both consumed and satisfied. As has been widely talked about amongst critics and moviegoers, Justine’s cravings eventually begin to extend far beyond the meat of animals and reach their peak as she takes her first foray into a world of sexual experiences. In a scene that will surely be remembered as one of the bloodiest climaxes of all time, the extent to which Justine’s pleasure is intertwined with extreme violence becomes more than evident.
Audiences in search of jump-scares in this particular horror will be sorely disappointed, for the true terror of Raw lies in its atmosphere and slow-burn nature, as Justine comes to realise that her fleshly desires cannot be satisfied by conventional methods. The fear that bubbles beneath the surface of Raw never truly ends but rather lingers constantly even while Justine carries out what should be a mundane task for a future vet; as she inspects the innards of a dog, the scene is unimaginably uncomfortable. This simmering sense of dread is part of what makes Ducornau’s debut work so well, as the feeling that Justine’s carnal needs know no limits creeps around throughout the film.
Raw is a transfixing horror film that offers a deeply original study of a young woman discovering both her capacity for sexual desire and her own agency, wrapped up in beautifully grotesque images and some seriously unsettling moments involving female grooming. A perfect watch for Women in Horror month.