RAW. Garance Marillier, Ella Rumpf, Rabah Naït Oufella, Laurent Lucas, Joana Preiss. Directed by Julia Ducournau. 98 minutes. Rated R18+ (High impact blood and gore).
I should begin by saying that ‘Raw’ is not for the faint of heart. It’s adult rating is well earned. I consider myself a seasoned campaigner on the horror films trail, but I was left squirming in my seat on several occasions. If you can stomach its more distressing moments (pun intended), then ‘Raw’ displays a wealth of French filmmaking and acting talent, with a rich potential for metaphorical readings that I could only begin to scratch the surface of on my first viewing.
In the opening scene, a single sedan speeds down a tree-lined country backroad. A human figure suddenly launches from behind a trunk, right into the car’s path. The car reacts accordingly, swerving to avoid them, but ends up ploughing into a tree on the other side. The music swells threateningly as the person picks themselves up and starts limping towards the driver’s side door, building to a fever pitch just as they reach out and pull the door handle before- the screen cuts to the title, ‘Grave’ in French, or ‘Raw’. It’s a terrific statement of intent, setting you utterly on edge for the next 90 minutes. The camerawork from Ruben Impens is clean and unglamorous, and Jim Williams’ score is part rock opera, part funeral requiem, a collision of electric guitar and organs that instantly transports you to a very particular mindset, melancholic and bleak and frightened.
Cutting away, 16-year-old wunderkind and lifelong vegetarian Justine (Garance Marillier) is dropped off at veterinary college by her parents. During her first night at the on-campus residence, she is awoken by booming music as the seniors begin their weeklong hazing campaign. Older students, decked in balaclavas and graffitied lab coats, burst into their rooms, throwing mattresses through windows and dragging dishevelled teens into their shared hallways. Their first night is a wild party, fuelled by free alcohol and utterly devoid of inhibitions. During the night, Justine runs into her older sister, Alexia (Ella Rumpf), who blazed a trail and started at the same school the previous year. Alexia’s extremely drunk, but takes Justine into a secret room where photos of previous years’ cohorts are displayed on the walls – hidden among the countless faces are the pair’s mother and father, themselves practicing veterinarians.
The next day, one of the key rituals involves the new residents being made to eat a raw rabbit kidney. Spurred on by her Alexia’s insistence that she not be the only student to not partake, Justine chokes one down. The first taste of meat in her life very quickly leads to some distressing side-effects, starting with a painful rash and insidiously escalating into an insatiable desire for more flesh.
Writer-director Julia Ducournau has crafted a cannibal horror film that submerges its more gruesome genre elements within a love story between two sisters. There are countless possible readings, from the feminist to the familial, and all are steeped in a carefully constructed atmosphere of dread. The camera lingers on exposed flesh - shirtless boys kicking a soccer ball, partygoers exposing themselves to photographers – and what starts as sexual fetishisation becomes more sinister as Justine’s transformation starts to take hold. The violence, when it occurs, is rarely aggressive, but its matter of factness is highly distressing. The performers, particularly Marillier and Rumpf, are naturalistic yet bold, delving into unquestionably taboo material with utter commitment. Rabah Naït Oufella, who plays Justine’s roommate and the object of her affections, is also a daring young performer. They really are all names to look out for.
With her first feature, Julia Ducournau has tackled the boldest of subjects with the most sensitive of touches. ‘Raw’ reportedly had audience members fainting during its runs in international film festivals, and I’m all in all unsurprised by such a response. However, underneath every queasy moment lies an unquestionable filmmaking talent, the exposure to which and anticipation of what it does next should soothe the stomach of any cinephile.
Callum Ryan is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.
Out April 20.