This article was originally published at ComicBook.Com on April 27, 2017.
Plot is overrated. It holds a story together and offers connections between scenes, but it isn’t enough to make you squirm or scream or spit popcorn. This sort of visceral response is something more pure; it taps into a part of our mind and forces it to respond. It’s raw.
Raw is French director Julia Ducournau’s first solo feature film centered on Justine, a vegetarian beginning her first year of veterinary school. After being forced to consume a raw rabbit’s kidney in the course of hazing, she discovers a deep, insatiable hunger within herself that activates changes within her body and behavior. It is the start of a dark vortex that includes her older sister Alexia and gay roommate Adiren.
Raw is a film that values plot and character, but treasures this more primal response. It seeks to make audiences react beyond thinking. To watch Raw is to move and make noise and choose between watching and looking away. The experience of the film is undeniably powerful and its very existence makes the case for the power of film. Every aspect of the narrative is obsessed with drilling into the concept of human hunger, in all of its forms including addiction, discovery, and ecstasy.
That description of the film makes it sound like a Dionysian object of revelry, but what sets Raw apart from films tackling similar subject matter is its restraint. Trailers cast the story as a non-stop descent into madness with pain and passion coating each shot. Those reels are a greatest hits feature that serve the filmmaking well, but not the film itself. There is a story of school, family, and friendships in Raw and it is this narrative that allows the truest moments of horror to transcend.
Ducournau demonstrates a tremendous understanding of tension. It is built, explored, restructured, and rebuilt throughout the course of Raw to tremendous effect. By the time audience members begin to feel their skin crawl the setting and rules have been established. Rather than depending purely on the grotesquerie of a single moment, Ducournau builds to it in a way that makes the actual event seem both inevitable and shocking.
This is encompassed nowhere better than in a scene between Justine and Alexia midway through the film’s tight 99 minutes. Justine is given an opportunity to further her newly discovered interest in meat in a moment that is carefully constructed, but still capable of eliciting screams. As she ponders the decision, the step forward could not be more clear, but Ducournau holds the camera and moment just long enough to leave a question mark hanging in the air. There is no turning back, there never is in Raw, but the director challenges the audience to believe things might turn out better before robbing them of hope.
Ducournau’s long tracking shots throughout the film, extended seemingly based on just how uncomfortable or disorienting any given moment might be, serve to act as a dare. They challenge viewers to not turn away because the camera will not do so on your behalf. The most rapid editing occurs towards the films climax and, even in this brutal back-and-forth, it cuts only every few seconds. There is a need to continue watching that compels viewers to value what is on the screen over their own appetites. The horror on the screen is not enough, it is valued by its presentation.
All of this presentation lives and dies on the elements that build, the performance of Garance Marillier coming first and foremost. She is a hurricane of conflicts and constant change, an adolescent essentially. When she first arrives at school it is with an attitude that is demure and resistant. The enormous changes she endures in less than two hours are stunning. Yet the emergence of Justine as a sexual being, a fearsome rival, or a predator all make sense within Marillier’s performance. A dance sequence in which she pumps French club beats that shout about f**king and dominance while lipstick is smeared on a mirror feels perfectly right even compared to the girl hiding in the corner of her room an hour before. It is a transformative performance.
That is boosted by the efforts of Ella Rumpf as her sister Alexia and Rabah Naït Oufella as her roommate. Their comparative comfort within the school make Justine’s tumultuous path forward stand out. They are the ones who have accepted their roles, more so than Justine at the very least, and who her path has the potential to wreck. It is their comfort that makes her growth possible. Justine’s father, played by Laurent Lucas, plays a much more minor role, but it is every bit as perfectly deployed as the younger actors. He steals the final scene of Raw and offers a final shot that is made exceptional by his facial expression.
All of this is enhanced by a production that is surprising at the very least and often superb in its many facets. The score by Jim Williams can be compared to that of another recent horror standout It Follows. It utilizes electronica and strings to pulse in viewer’s brains and ratchet up tension like a piano string prepared to snap and cut the player’s face. Lighting and design elements are spectacular throughout. Small details highlight the reality of this school in which so many outlandish events occur. The illustrations that bedeck upper classmen’s lab coats are one example of an element that makes even extras feel like real people. It is an absorbing environment that help make many of the repulsive actions on screen so difficult to look away from.
The story of Raw is uncomfortable, often disgusting, and so the riveting result of a film speaks volumes both about the quality of the craft and compelling themes it contains. This is a story of how humans cannot help themselves or one another when confronted by irresistible desires. It is a film of weakness and mistakes, one that does not demonize its subjects, but forces us to empathize with their hungers are ultimately not so different from our own. That is why it horrifies and why we cannot look away.
The result is raw, in the best sense of that word.