Minus the tarmac, the first shot could be a Pissarro painting. Trees flank a straight European road and the camera sits slightly off to one side so that the all the shot’s lines meet at an off-kilter vanishing point. Branches arc and the sky is still. Too bad all that perfect landscape is shortly to be doused in the human blood that sprays, firehose-style, across Julia Decournau’s new movie Raw.
Justine (Garance Marillier) is a prodigiously smart young veterinary student. She is also a vegetarian, from a family of vegetarian veterinarians. The movie follows the “rush week” of her first semester at vet school. On her first night, older students throw all the freshmen’s mattresses out the dorm room windows and force them outside in their pajamas. The scene toes a line between fun and awful, which probably characterizes the first week of university for everybody. The school is built in that gorgeous and hideous 1970s campus style, with big piazzas and horrible tiling. You can almost taste the fear and the wet concrete.
Justine’s older sister, Alexia, is also a student at the school. Instead of taking her side during the hazing, Alexia forces a bit of vet-school offal down Justine’s throat (remember, she’s a vegetarian). Justine retches; Alexia tells her to just do it, everybody is watching. We’re already deep into dreamlike shots of stained labcoats and horses running on treadmills when Justine starts to itch.
Several viewers fainted and others vomited during a Toronto screening of Raw. I feel for them: Not long after the itching begins, an amateur bikini wax close-up leads to the severing of some flesh. That’s when Justine’s hunger for human flesh really kicks in, and the desire to throw up seizes the viewer.
It’s not that the violence is so grueling, exactly. Your stomach flips when Justine bites down because the acting is so naturalistic and the cinematography so un-schlocky. Being a freshman is horrible. Everything feels gross; the cigarettes, the formaldehyde, the neat vodka Justine drinks at a dance party, her hangover the next day. Justine’s roommate is a handsome gay man who likes to play football and hang out with her. The sweetness of their friendship throws beams of sunshine into the fear and isolation of Justine’s condition—both as a freshman and as a compulsive cannibal.
Alexia catches Justine in the act of eating flesh, but it turns out that the sisters share the taste for blood. From then on the movie is wrapped in an atmosphere of tragedy and doom. The sisters’ relationship is tense and competitive; Alexia veers between supporting Justine and lashing out at her more censorious attitude to their disability (for it seems medical, from the start).
Raw is a Belgian-French movie, and it is subtitled. (You’ll recognize a few actors if you caught The Returned, and you’ll recognize a lot of actors if you have seen Netflix’s The Break.) But the relationship structure at its core—a younger and nerdier sibling doing battle with a more licentious older sister—makes Raw a close relation to the American movie Ginger Snaps (2000).
There is much that is silly in that movie, too. But I found tears running down my face when the credits rolled during both, even while other people in the cinema laughed and clapped. Ginger Snaps broke my heart because I couldn’t help picturing my sister turning into a werewolf and having to kill her. Older siblings’ lives feel like prophecies of one’s own. Watching an older sibling suffer and be destroyed is a bit like the moment after a zombie has bitten you. You know the sickness is coming for you next.
There is a canon of cannibalism horror movies, with the original and most famous probably being Cannibal Holocaust (1980). That movie featured effects so realistic (for the time) that it was widely rumored to be a snuff movie. It’s still banned in several countries.
The Silence of the Lambs is a cannibal movie, you will recall, as is Delicatessen (1991). Those are both good movies! But sadly the majority of movies about consuming human flesh are fairly dumb. The gleeful silliness of the genre makes Raw the more affecting, just as werewolf-y stupidity made Ginger Snaps the sadder by contrast.
Justine and Alexia’s ferocious need to bite down on other people is, as you may have intuited, partly a cipher for sex. Justine is a virgin at the movie’s start, before her lust for the bodies of others begins. There is a strong theme around consent and violated boundaries in Raw. Justine discusses the ethics of raping monkeys in an early scene. Later, she bites a boy during sex (without harming him) even after he asks her several times to stop. In the movie’s climactic scene, where we find that something terrible has happened in Justine’s dorm room, the refrain ringing around the room is, “Why didn’t you fight back?”
So, the power imbalance we usually discuss when we talk about freshmen and their bodies is inverted. But Justine never seems in control. She is in thrall to her own desires, which she cannot yet understand, and that is a sad thing to remember in oneself. If you can see past the rain of blood, Raw is a gorgeously moving film about fear and adolescence—albeit one best viewed on an empty stomach.