Director: Julia Ducournau

Starring: Garance Marillier, Ella Rumpf, Rabah Naït Oufella

Julia Ducournau’s French horror film Raw proves to be a deeply unsettling encounter. Lead character Justine (Garance Marillier), a devout vegetarian, begins her studies at veterinary school, and on her first night is plunged into the youthful, hedonistic rituals of the school’s elders. Known as ‘Rush Week’, the fresher students endure a week of frenzied parties and harassment at the hands of the elders. Justine is forced to eat a rabbit’s kidney to ensure safe passage through to peer acceptance. Her sister Alexia (Ella Rumpf), an elder, coerces Justine into eating the meat. What ensues is a crazed night of scratching at her skin, her rash-covered body in shock from forbidden consumption. From this, Justine develops an insatiable desire for meat and flesh, and is found one night by her roommate Adrien (Rabah Naït Oufella) eating raw chicken from the fridge.

Cannibalism is no stranger to film. Yet, what it is in the hands of a young female director is altogether different and unique. Despite the film’s stylistic play with flesh it refuses to stray from Justine’s tortuous journey through a place unaccepting of her cravings. Her virginity, or as she puts it ‘deflowering’, is in constant reference throughout the film. It alludes to not only the pressure to conform within any clan, and all too often a male-driven one, but to the unacceptability of her ravenous, consumptive desire in any form of intimacy or sex. In her first time with Adrien, who is in fact gay, Justine resorts to biting her own arm, maiming herself for blood rather than try his bare neck or arm.

Raw can be seen as an unflinching and bloody investigation into forbidden female sexuality. It’s perhaps this richly symbolic sub-text that keeps the film within its own reigns, securing its place as a thoughtful, conceptually complex work in a genre given to simplification and excess. Ultimately, the film isn’t really a horror. That’s not to say it isn’t fiercely disturbing, with scenes of aggressive biting and flesh eaten to the bone. But interestingly, it provokes and toys with situations and reactions concerned with observing a young woman give in to her desires, and take charge of her own body. Marina de Van’s in My Skin and Lynne Stopkewich’s Kissed pursue similar themes of impinged and suppressed female desire.

Yet, to argue that cannibalism is essentially a metaphor for something else, something more palatable, is likely to detract from it surface thrills and mislead the viewer. What is indisputable is that Justine’s sexuality is central, but to engulf the entire film with its social significance takes from its clear, unabashed taboo: cannibalism. In a sense Ducournau is raising this historically forbidden phenomenon to the audience to ask what it takes to make a monster out of a person, or more aptly, what’s the body of thought behind perceiving the actions of a person as monstrous?

Justine’s restraint is not shared by her sister Alexia, who kills and feasts on Adrien during the night. Justine finds her by the fridge dripping with blood. Alexia is detained for her actions, kept from a world intolerant to her ravenous desires. Her cannibalism. Maybe the best way to see the film is as a multi-layered probing into what is unmentionable – part analogy, part perversity.

Words by Ryan Suckling

This article first appeared in print volume 88 edition 4 GIRL