2016 R France Julia Ducournau 99 mins.
Julia Ducournau’s first feature Raw, which she wrote as well as directed, premiered at Cannes last year (May, 2016) and has been drawing praise ever since. The film follows a young woman, Justine (brilliantly played by Garance Marillier), who seems defined mostly by the rigid vegetarianism demanded by her family (her mother in particular) and by her life in the shadow of her more flamboyant older sister Alexia (Ella Rumpf). Justine is just beginning vet school as the film opens, following in her sister’s footsteps. During a hazing ceremony, Justine is forced to eat meat (rabbit kidneys, to be exact), and she then starts undergoing a strange transformation—skin rashes, severe pain, and a craving for meat.
Raw tells a rather conventional story: Justine is an innocent, leaving her family to be plunged into the disorienting, disturbing, violent world of her peers, forced to endure the artificial but unforgiving power structures of higher education with its arbitrary hazing rituals. Her relationship with her sister, already complicated (as sibling relationships typically are), is made even more so by Alex’s high status in vet school and by Justine’s place as abject entry-level student. Justine’s being forced to eat meat (by her sister)—evokes the assaults on the body that are part of hazing rituals and stands in for Justine’s eventual sexual awakening.
At first, Ducournau succeeds in telling her rather conventional story in an innovative way—and it is her emphasis on Justine’s vegetarianism and the broader set of principles in which it is embedded that makes her story interesting. Justine clearly came to vet school with the desire to help animals, and she assumes that her principles are shared by her classmates and teachers. But from the beginning, Ducournau uses her camera to objectify animals, relentlessly reducing them to pieces of meat around which the very human dramas swirl, their actors heedless of animals’ well-being, let alone their rights. Animals don’t matter much at this vet school—a fact that is encapsulated in the first-year students being forced to eat raw meat and getting drenched in animal blood. Raw is at its best in these moments, when animals are reduced to meat and Justine watches—her well-meaning worldview silently starting to crumble.
Justine’s idealism emerges in a cafeteria conversation with some of her classmates in which she tries to assert her view of animals’ rights, justifying her vegetarianism and her desire to become a vet. Justine goes as far as to claim that one can indeed “rape” a monkey—they are self-aware and thus they have rights. “I bet a raped monkey suffers like a woman,” Justine says, drawing an angry retort from another young woman: “So a raped monkey, raped woman, same thing?” Justine answers a more tentative “yes,” adding “Why are we at vet school?” The question hangs in the air and the debate (and its moral question) are left hanging.
Justine asserts an equivalence between animals and humans that her classmates clearly find questionable, if not repellent, but it’s one that Ducournau seems interested in making herself. Right after the cafeteria discussion, there is a shot of the students taking an exam that visually evokes animals in a cage.
The film primarily pushes the equivalence between humans and animals through cannibalism, as it soon becomes very clear that Justine’s new craving for meat is not confined to (nonhuman) animal flesh. She slowly gives in to her urge to eat human flesh—and the film’s foray into cannibalism expresses Ducournau’s stated view that she wanted her film to show that we are all, at bottom, human and animal, flesh and blood. We are all bodies, subject to all the body’s vagaries over which we have little control.
As Ducournau has said in an interview: “So, are you your body or is your body you? This is the kind of thing I always thought about: what does it mean in terms of identity?”
Raw makes us ask not only how much we are just our bodies, but how different those bodies are from animal bodies. The taboo against cannibalism (while most of us happily eat animals other than humans) is only one way we try desperately to shore up the boundaries. The equivalence of bodies as food is a different kind of equivalence than the one Justine asserts in her idealistic defense of animal’s rights not to be raped (or eaten), but it’s equally disturbing.
In its second half, Raw loses some of its power, not least because it succumbs to the conventionality of its story—the human transformation into some kind of monster, the flesh-eating / monstrosity as symbolic of sexual awakening, the family curse. . . . As the story overwhelms Ducournau’s visual and narrative interest in the equivalence of bodies, her film comes to resemble many other films—virtually all werewolf films, Cat People (Jacques Tourneur, 1942), and, most recently, the 2014 Danish film When Animals Dream, directed by Jonas Alexander Arnby.
Despite that, however, Raw is a brilliant exploration of what (if anything) makes us different from nonhuman animals and how in control we actually are of our body. At its best, I think Raw evokes some of the same questions as Tobe Hooper’s brilliant Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), and it does so with an equivalent raw power.