This review was originally published on February 8, 2017 during the Sundance Film Festival
As Justine careens through freshman year, “Raw” shapes itself into a morbid, funny, confrontational exploration of coming of age as a young woman.
The first time I cooked in college, I boiled a hot dog in a pot with penne pasta. Growing up, I hadn’t prepared many meals without supervision, evidently. I remember cradling my basic bowl in the corner of the study den, hoping no more “seasoned” students, who knew their food seasonings, would bear witness to my freshman shame. “Raw,” too, is a story about a young woman changing her diet during freshman year. And folks, campus cannibalism has never been more cinematic.
“Raw,” the fevered, unrelenting horror debut from first-time feature filmmaker Julia Ducournau, follows Justine, a tightly-wound freshman in veterinary school. Justine is a strict vegetarian, like her parents, and a focused student. However, when she arrives on campus, a vivid location where Ducournau imbues every leafy roadway and fluorescent hall with dread, the program doesn’t deliver what she expected. Her classmates are wild. Hundreds storm the dorms in hazing rituals, booming and clanging through the industrial hallways. The sound design, lighting, and cinematography are hyper-confident, providing stunning insight into Justine’s mindset. She’s overwhelmed, even repulsed, by the students eating raw meat and carousing. She rejects it all. Yet, as Justine navigates campus, she becomes curious. Her gaze lingers more and more on the bodies and relationships of other students. Justine seeks style tips from her brash older sister, trying to enter the campus culture of sensuality and freedom. She’s too timid to admit it, but she wants this.
As Justine careens through freshman year, “Raw” shapes itself into a morbid, funny, confrontational exploration of coming of age as a young woman. The film takes classic college film scenarios, from hookups to late night food runs, and infuses them with a delirious combination of sinister horror and feminist subtext. The key character journey comes when Justine recognizes, as the kids say, that she’s very thirsty. She yearns for sex, connection, and, possibly, human flesh. From her first bite of meat in a hazing ritual, she begins to come undone, or come into herself, or both depending on how you read the film. (It’s totally both.)
The film takes classic college film scenarios, from hookups to late night food runs, and infuses them with a delirious combination of sinister horror and feminist subtext.
I’ll spare you the gory details, but the film gained festival notoriety for allegedly causing spells of nausea. One early scene in the cafeteria rings a sounding bell for the boundary-pushing attitude you can expect. A group of vet students discuss animal cognition, questioning whether a chimpanzee would be traumatized by sexual abuse. Justine doesn’t hesitate to denounce animal abuse as harmful. But she goes a step further. Justine declares the chimp’s trauma to be “just the same” as a human woman. The table reels. The students are comfortable elevating animal rights, but Justine crosses a line when she lowers the human experience.
Justine, and the film, are full of forceful, uneasy questions. She lives at a remove from people, trying to decode how to flirt, to befriend, to dress up. When her roommate has sex in their dorm, exiling her to the hall, she leans in to listen. She wants to be part of their world but remains skeptical that humans are much different than animals. She’s devastated and empowered by the animalistic tendencies in herself. It’s a rich pool of double-edged metaphors. On the one hand, there are some bonkers, game-changing scenes where Justine’s desires flip the gender script. It’s culturally loaded fun when Justine turns a predatory gaze at shirtless boys on the field, leery in a way that’s rare for a female character. Yet, Justine doesn’t want to feel empowered by violence. It frightens her and veers beyond control. “Raw” is many things, and it’s far more than its gonzo scenes re-imagining young women as movie monsters.
“Raw” could also connect with many as a portrayal of addiction and mental illness, and the horror of realizing the substances and feelings others seem to handle are wreaking havoc in you. Other viewers may hone in on the surprisingly warm story about sisterly love and competition that threads through the film. Still, others might dig into the vicious send-up of the meat industry, and other abuses society hides under the thin veneer of culture. Choose your own adventure.
The greatness of “Raw” comes from its manifold delights. It’s funny, sick, perceptive, tragic, and invigorating. It’s a tender film about family legacy, a campy cannibal flick, an intimate coming of age drama, a college sexploits film, and much more. It pulses with energy and ideas, swerves through tonal shifts, but never loses sight of its lead character’s journey. Its mix of genres is irreducibly wonderful. I’m still in awe of this film. See it as soon as you can.
‘Raw’ is rated R for aberrant behavior, bloody and grisly images, strong sexuality, nudity, language and drug use/partying. 99 minutes. Opening at the Nuart Theater on Friday, March 10th.