Julia Docournau’s feature debut “Raw” has been the subject of film festival controversy despite being received as highly regarded cinema. The horror genre is known for making those with the strongest of stomachs a bit squeamish, but Docournau’s “Raw” takes the gore to a surprisingly new level.
It’s not that such gore hasn’t graced theaters before, but the way that Docournau presents it, allowing for eyes to feast on all its cannibalistic glory. But what separates “Raw” from past cannibal flicks is its desire to place storytelling at the forefront rather than relying simply on shocking images but nothing of substance.
“Raw” opens by introducing Justine (Garance Marillier), a vegetarian teen entering her first year of veterinarian school. The college lifestyle is a dramatic change for Justine as she becomes the target of “rookie” hazing. Her older sister, Alexia (Ella Rumpf), gladly takes part in breaking Justine into her new environment.
When Alexia pressures Justine into eating a rabbit liver as part of the hazing festivities, Justine’s life begins to change. The taste of liver awakens an overbearing satiation to consume even more meat–including human flesh. Justine juggles the responsibilities of being a college student, or lack thereof, with her new-found cravings.
Docournau not only directed but also wrote “Raw.” Her twist on the classic coming of age story and cannibal story creates a familiar yet original approach to the horror genre. Her craft is seasoned to the point where it seems almost impossible to believe this is her first feature film. Very few directors manage to capture the terror of the genre and still land on their feet by the film’s end. Docournau does just that. This is a sign of an aware filmmaker.
One of the high points of “Raw” is the way it handles the theme of lust. In a handful of scenes, Marillier brilliantly personifies lustful emotion. In the context of the film, lustful incorporates more than just sexual desire. In that sense, these scenes become ever more uncomfortable and awkward for viewers, but there is an allure that more than imprisons the mind.
The juxtaposition of this woman-coming out of her shell on a college campus and the engrossing, unexplainable realization of being a cannibal is a work of genius, and a creative way to deliver this sort of content. Neither situation could be very comfortable for the individu-al experiencing such extreme life changes, but once again Marillier brings her very best to the role. Rumpf’s more relaxed portrayal as Alexia helps to contrast the two sisters, and drives the urgency for Justine to understand her new life.
There is certainly an undercurrent being displayed about feminism in Docournau’s construction of “Raw.” As the film comes to a close, it becomes very apparent of such message. It’s not a “in your face” sort of message, and that is what makes it all the more effective. Docournau’s characters are female and strong, and they aren’t trying to be something they are not. It is very difficult to walk away and not be enamored with Justine and Alexia as rich characters in a thrilling tale, much to the credit of Docournau’s writing melding perfectly with Marillier and Rumpf’s performances.
As excellent as the storytelling and performances are in “Raw,” it would be a mistake to not talk about the gore. There are some simply stunning exhibits of the gnarly, bloody aftermath of cannibalized events. If an appetite was present prior to the film, it certainly goes missing before exiting the theater. Few films go as far as “Raw” does, and the design element is extraordinary. It makes one wonder if these visuals could possibly be fake, they look so real. Mix this with an intense and haunting soundtrack, and Docournau has constructed the complexities of the cannibal-horror genre that are often missing from many other films.
The gore may bring audiences to the theater, but Docournau’s craft will leave them witnesses of something special. “Raw” will likely finish as the year’s best horror film, and deservedly so. For a bunch of unknowns to come onto the cinema scene with such strong first effort is quite rare. Whether a fan of horror films, foreign films, or films with exquisite sense of construction and delivery, “Raw” will surely please.