Raw – first look

Fresh feminine (and sororal) horror from French first feature director Julia Ducournau, set in the blank spaces of a veterinary college.

One of Sight & Sound’s best films of 2016.

Chloe Roddick

Web exclusive

Raw (2016)

French writer-director Julia Ducournau’s extraordinary first feature is a heady, blood-soaked examination of femininity, sexual awakening and the sisterly bond.

Following in her strict-vegetarian parents’ footsteps, 16-year-old Justine (Garance Marillier) starts at a veterinary college, where her older sister Alexia (Ella Rumpf) is also studying. Unceremoniously dumped in the school’s car park, Justine is left to fend for herself.

It soon becomes clear that this is not a welcoming place. A series of vicious hazing ceremonies ensue: the students are awoken in the middle of the night and made to crawl semi-naked to a party; they are bathed in blood and paint; and Justine is forced to eat a raw rabbit’s liver, despite her protests of devout vegetarianism. Justine’s reaction is extreme and physical – she develops an angry, red rash all over her body, then comes the gnawing desire for meat and, along with it, an aggressive sexual appetite.

Almost entirely adult-free, the school offers no authority figures to protect the intelligent, naïve newbie. One teacher tells a nervous Justine that he doesn’t like the smart ones, while a chain-smoking nurse reacts to her full-body rash without concern.

Justine’s only emotional links are with Alexia, who wants little to do with her sister at first, and her gay roommate Adrien (Rabah Naït Oufella), who is non-judgmental to a fault. This, then, is not the typical, oppressive high-school setting, but rather a kind of bleak, emotionless non-space that, crucially, offers Justine room for self-expression, largely unfettered by expectation or constraints. It is only after she is filmed, blind-drunk and hungry for flesh in a morgue, that the other students turn on her, a moment that culminates in a bloody confrontation between the two sisters.

Raw (2016)

Ducournau’s control of her material is masterful. The script is at once fiercely original and replete with a rich awareness of the genre, smoothly referencing films from Carrie to Ginger Snaps and The Craft. Marillier is excellent, playing Justine with a subtlety and assurance that grounds the film, even at its most extreme.

Central is the relationship between Justine and Alexia, which both drives the narrative and is key to the director’s exploration of what it means to be a girl. The older sister’s lessons aren’t always orthodox – she lends Justine a short dress for a ‘slut’ party, teaches her how to pee standing up and, finally, how to satisfy her increasingly worrying appetite for meat. In one scene, dismayed to learn that her sister doesn’t shave, Alexia takes it upon herself to impart some expertise. It’s an important moment: not only is it one of the most extreme bikini-waxing scenes ever shot, buoyed by some sickeningly good special effects, but it also explicitly juxtaposes Justine’s refusal to conform to body stereotypes with a violent, cannibalistic outburst.

Though Raw is gruesome, with gore- and sound effects so realistic they are sometimes difficult to stomach, Ducournau’s intelligent exploration of femininity gives depth to the film’s visceral, bloody celebration of the body and its appetites.

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