I very much anticipated the film that made viewers faint in Toronto Film Festival as a result of the realistic depiction of cannibalism. Horror and cannibalism have never been my cup of tea on the screen – with the glorifying exception of the Bryan Fuller’s NBC TV series, Hannibal – so I wasn’t sure how I would react to young Justine’s cravings. My stomach was tight throughout the film but I genuinely liked it. Raw has an incredible energy as the tension and the horror build up slowly from the beginning only to climax towards the end. It scares you, disgusts you, shows you the darkest corners of human sexuality, upsets you and terrorises you at a very realistic level as you gradually spot the similarities between the protagonist and yourself.
The film’s French/Belgian title is Grave that means serious, important and is connected to a vital scene in the narrative. And a serious condition it is, the one Justine, our heroine finds herself into. Triggered by a bite of raw meat as part of the initiation ritual for sophomores by the veterinary school’s fraternity, she is experiencing for the first time (having being a vegetarian all her life) an unquenched desire for flesh.
Ducournau’s first attempt to direct is heavily inspired by the 2000 Canadian horror Ginger Snaps and the erotic French 2001 Trouble Every Day. The cult films explore the relationship of two teenage sisters that unite against the threat of an unwanted transformation. In the case of Raw, it is not the myth of the Lycanthropes (aka Werewolves) or that of Vampires that messes with the siblings’ lives but their cannibalistic desires. Our two sisters, Alexia and Justine have an imbalanced relationship, charged with antagonistic feelings that spur violent confrontations.
Justine enters a new world much crazier and brutal than what she can take. Initially, she lowers her head and undergoes the fraternity’s hazing in silence. It becomes clear from the first scene at the school – the raid of dorms by the masked elder students that reminded me of a hostage situation or an attack at gunpoint – that violence is the weapon of power. At the beginning of the film this weapon is at the hands of the fraternity that terrorises Justine and makes her everyday life insufferable (when she has to wear pampers in class, her mattress is thrown under the window, etc.). Later on however, it is Justine who is handed the power thanks to her transformation. She is the most dangerous being amongst them and she is no longer in absolute control. The veterinary school therefore, functions as the platform of personal growth and self-discovery for her and she manages to enter adulthood in a reluctant and horrifying way.
Ducournau’s script gives us a story about transformation that cannot be interrupted once it starts and perhaps, it shouldn’t be anyways. Surely, it is not a sweat deal for Justine and her sister (and their mother as we learn by the end of the film in a shocking moment of revelation) to be possessed by their yearnings for fresh human flesh but it is part of their identity, of who they truly are. This is a coming-of-age film that doesn’t judge its heroines but praises their empowerment instead.
The craving for fresh and the physicality of the outbursts of this desire can easily be a metaphor for sexual awakening. The metamorphosis of an innocent teenager who is shy, quiet and feels awkward around boys into a strong, sexy and untamed woman with taboo desires touches upon the female empowerment and sexual liberation in today’s society.
A proof for the above in my case was the unexpected level of identification with the character that I experienced. Her vulnerability and insecurity when new sensations and urges overwhelm her on the one side and her force, courage and lust for life on the other make Jusitne a highly relatable heroine who you can root for because she goes through an ordeal that remind you a lot of your own adolescent troubles. Finally, the much talented 19-year old Garance Marillier (Justine) gives a brave and dynamic performance that is imperative to the film’s quality. She captivates the viewer as she mirrors their reactions to what is being unfold before them because her heroine seems to be one of us, just like us or could she simply be us?