Writer-director Julia Ducournau’s feature debut revolves around Justine, a young vegetarian who acquires a taste for meat after undergoing a carnivorous hazing ritual.
PHOTO: COURTESY OF FOCUS WORLD
Justine (Garance Marillier) is a typical second child — doted on by her loving parents (Laurent Lucas and Joana Preiss) and envied by her older sister Alexia (Ella Rumpf). Following the family line, Justine enrolls in school to become a veterinarian. As a legacy kid, she must endure a carnivorous hazing ritual visited upon all hapless first-year students; but having lived her life as a strict vegetarian, Justine balks. She seeks protection and advice from Alexia, but gains no special favors.
Raw, the feature debut from French writer-director Julia Ducournau, presents the set-up with a casual and almost offhand approach, but insinuates a hint of impending dread in the haunting score and soundtrack and in the dead-eyed stare of Marillier. As well it should, for as the film develops it becomes a story about Justine submitting to meat eating in the extreme — cannibalism.
The obvious comparative references for Raw would be the new brand of dramatic horror movies like It Follows, The Witch and A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, but a more expansive take would incorporate the idea of how coming-of-age stories for young women speak to danger-prone transformations.
Another example would be last year’s Cincinnati-shot indie film The Fits, a coming-of-age drama that had strange, perhaps-supernatural elements. Justine in Raw and the young dancer in The Fits (Royalty Hightower) are the latest iterations of female protagonists going back to the likes of the misunderstood young fictional heroines of Stephen King’s Carrie and Firestarter, or the mutant Jean Grey from Chris Claremont’s classic X-Men comic books.
On the cusp of womanhood, terrible secrets lurk in the burgeoning hormones and DNA of these characters, and all around them are cautionary examples of the miscues and mistakes that can be made. In Raw, power — both in terms of heightened knowledge and/or self-awareness and dawning sexuality — manifests itself and threatens to overwhelm Justine.
It would be easy to confuse the notion of cannibalism on display here for the undead hunger that drives the current zombie craze. But there is a key distinction in Justine’s case — her awakening to the taste of flesh is rooted in a full embrace of a new way of life. Prior to that first nibble during that hazing ritual, Justine has been sheltered from not just the powerful allure of cannibalism, but also sensual hormonal impulses. She has been cocooned in the cloistered realm of books and familial protection, and even during her first tentative steps outside that enclave, as she reaches out to Alexia, Justine fails to appreciate how removed she has been from the messier details of life.
Ducournau shows us the emerging internal conflicts in Justine as she watches the more hedonistic surrender of her gay roommate Adrien (Rabah Nait Oufella) to his sexual cravings. Equal measures of envy and lust compete in actress Marillier’s eyes; Ducournau dresses up the raw sensuality with signs of a sticky ecstasy to come.
In Raw, Ducournau quietly exposes the kink not just in Justine, but also in her voyeuristic audience — us. We see and feel the frenzied call of Justine’s bloodlust and may be surprised at how easy it is to identify with it. When Adrien mercifully takes her virginity, the sexual heat is scorching in ways that remind us of how empty and meaningless porn really is by comparison. Human hunger is alive onscreen in its nascent glory, in a form that many of us have buried in the dark recesses of our minds.
Reports from around the world of extreme audience reactions to Raw are spreading like urban legends. As Justine advances from that initial taste of meat to greater ecstasies of the flesh, warnings of waves of repulsion have been issued, but Ducournau isn’t interested in glorifying the accompanying violence or the feeding frenzies. She and the film are merely seeking to answer the following question: How do you live with yourself once you’ve crossed a point of no return? Raw displays a haunting hesitancy in its reply, much like Justine’s response to her predicament. (Opens Friday at the Esquire Theatre.) (R) Grade: A-