Have you ever noticed that cannibalism is a lot like burgeoning sexuality? Julia DuCournau has. That’s the basic theme of Raw (which DuCournau wrote and directed), in which college freshman Justine (Garance Marillier) leaves her parents’ nice, vegetarian home to join her older sister at a freewheeling veterinarian’s college (seriously). After an initiation ritual in which she chugs a raw rabbit kidney, she develops an insatiable (and more importantly embarrassing) meatlust, smuggling hamburger patties in her lab coat and gnawing raw chicken breast fresh from the mini fridge. Aw, jeez, mom, what’s wrong with me?
Justine’s lust for flesh is all tied up with her sexuality, see, and the girl who arrived at college a nerdy vegetarian virgin suddenly has all kinds of confusing new feelings she can’t control — “lust for flesh” becoming something of a double entendre. In the same way, DuCournau has essentially created a body horror based on body horror. One clue that this is supposed to be universal is when Justine leaves her dorm stall after an intense session of puking up raw meat to find a fellow freshman who heard her retching. Who tells Justine helpfully, “If you use two fingers it comes up faster.”
I enjoyed Raw‘s wit a lot more than I did its gross-out stunts, if I’m being honest. Not that the latter doesn’t have a clear purpose. DuCournau seems to want us to feel as squeamish watching her film as a young girl does about the prospect of leaving the nest — with all that that entails (namely, boys, plucking your eyebrows, waxing your vagina, etc.). In keeping with that philosophy, Raw rarely goes five minutes of screen time without trying to make us puke, whether from raw meat, dead animals, full body rashes, or various gore, usually accompanied by some teen flesh, just to make you feel extra weird about it all.
DuCournau certainly stretches the “kind of” in “growing up is kind of like becoming a cannibal.” I’ve seen Raw twice and I still don’t know what to make of a scene where Justine vomits hair. But for the most part, DuCournau treats her own central metaphor as a mere jumping off point for all kinds of wry observations and flights of fancy, and the obvious glee she takes in being a provocateur is contagious. Raw‘s schlock and titillation is always underpinned by this universal metaphor, which frees her to really revel in the schlock and titillation, which is just so very French. I’m not sure I’d buy the idea of a “freewheeling veterinary college” if it was set anywhere else. In fact I have some questions about the pedagogical process there, where the first day of school apparently includes a midnight topless rave party and hedonistic coeds throw keggers in the school morgue. Ugh, I should’ve gone to school in France.
Of course, Raw wouldn’t be compelling if it was just grossness underpinned by broad metaphor. What keeps it together is DuCournau’s considerable wit. There are really only three characters — Justine, her sister, Alexia (Ella Rumpf — exuding that annoying kind of accidental hotness Europeans seem to have), and her gay jock roommate, Adrien (Rabah Nait Oufella), who seems to be the only one having fun. Or at least, getting the most action. Justine and Alexia have a loving, nearly homicidal sisterly rivalry, and the scene where their feud comes to a crescendo, both of them so murderous that they become ostracized from their peers and stuck with each other all the more — two freaks alone together — is unforgettable. There’s also a stellar scene involving a waxing mishap gone gory, which every film should have.
The Justine-Adrien relationship, meanwhile, is entirely unique. Thrown together by fate — “What? I asked for a girl!” “Well you got a fag, same thing to them, I’m sure” — and bonded by the shared adversity of being “rookies,” they end up sort of baffled by each other and protective in equal measure. It’s an interesting dynamic, where Adrien’s open sexuality would seem to (and sort of does) make him more understanding of Justine’s freak urges, but at a certain point even Adrien is like “Okay I respect you but can you not eat me, please?” Ah, the gay best friend’s eternal burden.
Raw is never a perfect allegory, and that’s part of the fun of it. DuCournau films some truly wild shit and then gives it just enough metaphorical subtext as if to say “You can see what I’m saying here, right?”
Sure, sure, we can, kinda. Wildness itself is, of course, the other part of the fun, not to mention how well Raw works as foreign exotica for American viewers. As much as I enjoyed its impeccable comedic timing and the relatability of its themes, some of my favorite parts were untranslatably French, like Adrien wearing a black hoodie with a giant picture of Dewey from Malcolm in the Middle on it, or Justine dancing in the mirror to what I can only describe as French Juggalette rap. Spit by what sounded like two brassy ladies, the only lyrics I managed to write down were “Pretty corpse, I like to bang the dead.”
Maybe it makes more sense in French? Maybe gangsta rap has more necrophilia there? I don’t know, but I enjoyed being inspired to wonder. When Justine goes to student health to see about a rash, her doctor lights up a cigarette before dispensing important life advice. Magnifique.
Frenchness aside though, Raw seems to be a particularly intense and inspired rendering of what it’s like to be a teenage girl, or to have a sister. As a male only child I’ll probably never fully understand everything going on here, but I understood enough, such that I’m left with the immortal words of Justine’s father: “Never have two girls, Justine, it’s too hard.”