Well…that was most certainly something. Raw (Grave) is a gory, disgusting and demented film, and also an utterly brilliant piece of cinema. This is a film that had me gagging in disgust and applauding in celebration of its pure audacity. If that doesn’t mean this is certainly an experience, then I am not entirely sure what does.
Raw is about Justine (Garance Marillier), a young woman from a strictly vegetarian family. She sets off for veterinary school, where she will hopefully learn how to help animals. It actually turns out to be the opposite, because the college is populated by older students that enjoy terrorizing the freshman students by forcing them to engage in eating raw pieces of animals. Their hazing ritual is gross, but pretty standard compared to what has been shown before. However, for Justine, this hazing ritual turns her into someone with an insatiable lust for flesh – and once meat doesn’t cut it anymore, she moves onto something far more sinister – cannibalism.
Garance Marillier is an utter revelation in this film. At quite a young age, I wouldn’t have thought she would have been capable of such a performance. She brings out the true complexities of her character, showing her metamorphosis from innocent young woman to bloodthirsty, flesh-hungry monster. If I were to consider Raw a horror film (which I don’t – but more on that later), Marillier would give one of the finest of the year by a very long mile. She is so dark and disturbing, and her commitment to this role is truly something to behold. There is just something about the way she plays this character as the combination of a foolish and terrified teenager, all the way to a truly despicable, morally-questionable character that makes her performance so unforgettable.
Ella Rumpf, who plays Justine’s sister Alexia, is also equally as brilliant. She starts out as someone who is just trying to fit in and be as popular as she can be. She is the typical rebellious college student, as evident by an early scene where she says she isn’t a vegetarian like she was raised to be. However, when we discover that she isn’t actually going to be a foil to Justine’s transformation into a cannibal, but rather the main driving force for her movement into that grotesque world of cannibalism, her performance becomes a lot more complex. This film is as much about Alexia as it is about Justine, and Rumpf is so dedicated to the role, and her solid chemistry with Marillier is absolutely electric. The duo makes a terrifying combination and scare the living daylights out of the audience.
Now that the formalities of this film are out of the way, let us get into the real depths of what makes Raw such a great film. Here’s the thing – Raw is one of the most disgusting films I have ever seen in my life it truly is something that made me physically sick. It shocked me like very few films ever do – and unlike notable macabre films like A Serbian Film or Human Centipede, Raw does not carry the label of a forbidden film – there is nothing about this film that screams that it should be avoided – and it really should not, because underneath the absolutely graphic gore and concept that makes me sick even thinking about it, there is something so special and meaningful underneath this film, and something that is a remarkable experience for those with the willpower to actually make it to the end.
Unlike the aforementioned Serbian Film or Human Centipede, Raw was not made with the intention to seemingly only shock and disgust people – there are far too many films like that, and I’m not interested in them at all. The difference between those films and Raw is that Raw has artistic merit behind it, in the most unexpected place – the violence and gore. In a cinematic landscape where many genres, particularly horror films, make use of excessive gore to terrify the audience, Raw uses violence and gore in a very different way, not only to disgust us, but to also push the boundaries of arthouse cinema. There is quite a bit of gore in this film (not on the level one would expect from a modern horror film), but much like the world of Quentin Tarantino and films like Beasts of No Nation, Raw creates utter beauty out of gore. I will never forget the extraordinarily memorable moment where Justine is awakened to her cannibalistic urges, nor will I ever forget the final moment of this film that actually made me keel over in shock and surprise. Violence can be so artistic, and what makes Raw such a disturbing film isn’t the violence or gore – it is the manner in which it is shown to us, in a way that is so artistically sound and beautiful. It repulses us to see something that is so revolting but also so poignantly beautiful. It is a strange concept, but once you’ve seen this film, you’ll understand what this idea is.
One piece of work that I think might have inspired Raw is Stephen King’s Carrie. Much like Carrie, Raw is centred around a girl who finds out that she has otherworldly qualities and goes on a path of destruction. This is where the comparison ends, other than one huge factor – both works are about young women going through a transformation – I wouldn’t say Raw has the came coming-of-age, puberty romanticism about it, but I certainly think this film, as a whole, could be viewed somewhat as an allegory for growing up and resisting certain urges and coming to know yourself. The pure eroticism of this film, such as Justine’s hunger for both meat and her male roommate, show that there is something deeper at play here. But that doesn’t drive this film – the fact that this is a truly tremendous genre film is what makes it so extraordinary.
The problem is this – it is almost impossible to categorize Raw. It isn’t really a horror – it has some horrifying moments, and it does try and shock the audience, but it certainly isn’t a horror in the traditional sense. It is more of a deeply complex psychological thriller, with an extraordinary amount of attention paid to creating something terrifyingly oddball, which damages your ability to think properly for a little while. It isn’t a complicated film – it is a film that plays with your emotions, your beliefs and your sanity. Frequently darkly hilarious, it almost seems like something John Hughes would make if he had the urge to make an erotic French cannibal film. Something tells me that might not have been his first choice to make.
Now I need to be honest here – I try and praise every filmmaker I can. Making any kind of film is difficult, and I do like to shine a spotlight on new, up-and-coming filmmakers. Yet, I just want to be straightforward here, stripping this clean of any standard praise, and just be completely honest – Julia Ducournau had some real courage to go ahead and make this film. It took true and unabashed audacity to make this film, and at such a young age it was a tricky film to make. It is always encouraging to see young filmmakers doing such original and audacious work – it brings a sense of comfort to the fact that cinema may actually be able to enter into another Golden Age with the rise of audacious independent filmmakers. Ducournau should receive an immense amount of kudos for simply creating something like Raw. It is a bizarre and terrifyingly harsh film and she is an utter genius for creating it so.
The filmmaking in Raw works in conjunction with the themes and the plot. The manner in which this film was made is equally as notable as the story in the film. Ruben Impens photographed this film so beautifully – I have never been so dazzled by the image of a young woman eating a finger quite as much as I have been here. Both the terror and the poignancy of this film are brought to the forefront throughout through the visual aesthetic. There are so many memorable scenes in this film, and a lot of it has to do with the way this film looks, just as much as it has to do with the utterly insane storyline. The most shocking thing about Raw isn’t how macabre it is – it is how beautiful it looks in its own deplorable moments. That is cinema at its finest.
Here’s a warning: if you are overly queasy or have a weak stomach, don’t watch this film. I consider myself someone with tremendous willpower for anything, but even this made me question why I was watching it. It is a film that will make people so revolted, they will question everything about themselves. As much as I liked this film, it certainly is not for everyone. But for those that can handle it, it is such a rewarding, fascinating and beautifully made piece of cinema that serves to shock more than anything else. It is a demented, deranged film that made me feel so sick and actually made me feel like I was on the verge of fainting – but I loved absolutely every minute of it. A masterpiece of postmodern filmmaking, and Ducournau is a genius we should keep our eyes on, because if this is what she is doing now, imagine what she will do over the next few years.