“When a young vegetarian undergoes a carnivorous hazing ritual at vet school, an unbidden taste for meat begins to grow in her.” — IMDb
Raw (original title: Grave) is French director Julia Ducournau’s feature film debut, and DAMN it is good to see a female director rock so hard. It has won several awards at various screenings so far, which comes as no surprise to me. It is just barely over the line into the horror genre, but the scenes and images that do qualify have a lasting impact.
The movie focuses primarily on Justine (Garance Marillier in what is her own feature film debut, amazingly) as she navigates the rather terrifying waters of starting veterinary school at her parents’ alma mater and alongside her free-willed sister, Alexia (Ella Rumpf). During an unusually sinister hazing ritual, Justine — a lifelong vegetarian — is forced to eat raw meat, and finds she likes it more than she expected…
** SPOILERS! **
What struck me initially — and throughout the entire film — was how different of a mood there was surrounding Justine’s starting at school. There is usually such an air of excitement, nervous anticipation, and downright electricity when movie characters are shown going off to school… but there is immediately a feeling of dread and sort of half-hearted resistance. There’s no doubt that while Justine is obviously intelligent and compassionate, veterinary school — or at least *this* veterinary school — was not her first choice. The “elders” are cruelly juvenile in their displays of asserting their dominance and it makes for an unpredictable and volatile experience, not knowing when they will have another unreasonable request.
The cinematography — done by Ruben Impens — is impressive from the get-go. The shots are fresh and creative, unapologetically both raw and genuine, stripped down at times but rich in symbolism, color placement/contrast, and excellent lighting.
Speaking of symbolism, Ducournau does a masterful job at conveying Justine’s sexual and self-awakening with the use of some primal yet honest imagery. She spends the first chunk of the movie cautiously bumbling through life, avoiding confrontation, dodging attention, and being afraid to stand up for her own personal values even as they’re violated at the urging of her own sister. But after she tastes her first bit of raw flesh, she is slowly but intensely transformed. The scene of her covertly gnawing on a raw chicken breast from her room’s mini fridge won’t stick with me nearly as long as her rhythmically swaying and girating in front of the mirror, seemingly aware of her own power for the first time, sneering and smearing hot pink lipstick across her mouth.
The gore is stomach-churning but well-placed. The film maintains this eerie hypnotism throughout — reminiscent, in a way, of David Lynch’s work. There are many moments where your gut instinct is to turn your head but something deeper pulls at your attention.
It crescendos into several fantastic twists at the end, which I won’t ruin… but suffice it to say that I loved the combination of repulsion and reuniting, the brutal and unhindered show of humanity’s — and woman’s — transformation.
A grisly, heartbreaking, slow burn of a film… highly recommended.
Rating: 8/10 | Director: Julia Ducournau | Writer: Julia Ducournau | Music: Jim Williams | Cinematography: Ruben Impens | Starring: Garance Marillier, Ella Rumpf, Rabah Nait Oufella, Laurent Lucas, Joana Preiss