“I am hungry though my stomach always feels empty” says new student Justine as a doctor, treating her red, blistering rash, tells her to fast for a day after a bout of food poisoning. There’s an old saying that the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, and you could argue the same about Justine in this tale about lust and bloodlust.
Food used to be a huge deal for me, which was both a blessing and a curse, but as I’ve got older it has become less about sensuality and tastebuds and buying love, and more about simple fuel. And while there’s something enjoyably mechanical about recharging one’s body, I miss what food used to mean to me – the power it gave me and the power it held me in. Because food is sensual, even when it’s cannibalistic.
This may be a film about cannibalism – both real and as a metaphor for sexual awakenings – but to be honest the most “urgh” bits of the film for me were more run of the mill.
When Justine wakes to find her skin red and already peeling off, it reminded me of my own skin allergies, though mine were only food-related because the sole relief I could get was stabbing at the damage with a fork.
But harder to watch was her sister Alex attempting to give Justine a Brazilian and finding the wax wouldn’t rip off. (If you’re ever thinking of this, please, please go to a beauty salon. Honestly it’s not that embarrassing if you just stare at the ceiling while wittering on about anything – ANYTHING – until it’s over, and you can get dressed.)
Or maybe this, and the peeling skin, are just reminders of what women often put themselves through as they grow up – after all “beauty is pain”, Alex reminds her younger sister.
That’s not to say watching Justine gnawing at other people’s body parts is fun. But Raw is actually a rather brilliant, headily erotic, and entertainingly bleak story of learning to be comfortable in your own skin by breaking free, with a warning that the past can still control you.
Justine, an academically brilliant young student, is about to start training to be a vet. A vegetarian and a virgin – at the start of that first, initiation filled week anyway – she’s soon entangled in something far more serious where sexual and physical tastes combine. While her fellow freshers are tucking into burgers and booze she’s fighting the growing urge to chew chunks out of them.
Blood is often used in horror films to show young women growing up and breaking free, whether it’s periods or fighting off attacks from men and monsters. And it’s a similar tale here as Justine is introduced to one of the very last taboos in a world where nothing is really shocking any more.
I says she is introduced, but throughout the film Justine has a weaselly tendency to blame others for her problems and to get out of trouble.
Her parents drop her off at university and even driving through the campus she says “I’m already lost”. Older sister Alex is also a student there, but is nowhere to be seen, already lost to her family. “Call your sister, she may answer for you” says Justine’s mum, leaving her younger daughter in the car park.
It’s hard to maintain your boundaries when you’re in a new group and starting at the very bottom, status-wise. The students are dragged out of bed in the middle of that first night, their mattresses chucked out of the windows, then made to crawl like animals.
Adrien, her roommate, reassures her it’s just a game, and the party they’re heading to on all fours certainly looks fun. Pounding music, sweat and alcohol mingling over every body, all is dark until bright lights suddenly illuminate naked breasts and damp hair and writhing bodies. Justine finds her sister at last, and she’s wasted.
The hazing fills the whole week – one minute they’re at lectures and dissecting cows, the next they’re made to eat raw rabbit kidneys. Soon after, Justine’s skin starts blistering, and the doctor gives her cream and a warning.
Bullying rituals are always uncomfortable to watch – a small version of a systemic structure where the previously bullied uphold the status quo once it is their turn to inflict the same humiliation and embarrassment on the new batch. But they also offer entry into an exclusive club, where finally you can be accepted simply for going through it: “your profs will make your the best vets out there, your elders will make you family!” the new students are told.
But away from her vegetarian parents, the virginal Justine is now starting to crave what she hasn’t had. The sex is as raw as the meat and her urges are uncontrollable – watching her as she fucks for the first time, the flailing limbs and the urgency, her terrifying eyes show she’s retreated into herself.
And the hazing goes on and on, pushing her further. At one point she and a fellow student are drenched in blue and yellow dye and pushed into a room together – bringing a whole new meaning to the phrase paint job, sadly it doesn’t end with some lovely blending.
Garance Marillier is shockingly good as the teenage Justine, emerging from the protective, rule-bound parental home trying to find her own freedom. Ella Rumpf as her older, less instinctively wise sister Alex reminded me of Beatrice Dalle in Betty Blue. The relationship between the two sisters is very true to life. It looks as if the younger girl needs Alex’s protection but Alex seems less able to cope with student life and her cravings than Justine.
First time director Julia Ducournau is thoughtful enough not to flinch on our behalf from what happens. If anything scenes are lingered over, but without being exploitative – retching up a hairball takes forever, as the retching makes Justine retch even more.
In some ways Raw is derivative. The idea of men being enticed by women for sex then punished when they can’t escape is age-old, and her partners’ terror as Justine’s madness retches up is painfully clear.
And with horror such an entertainingly self-referential genre it’s hardly surprising that there are throwbacks to other classics about all kinds of metamorphoses: the menstruation-drenched Carrie, the sloughing skin as Jeff Goldblum turned into The Fly. And there’s a severed finger, which is so common I even wrote about it in my review of that vampire feminist classic A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night.
But Raw shines a light on women’s sexuality in a new way and manages to avoid being too bound to older stories.
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