Director: Julia Ducournau
Cast: Garance Marillier, Ella Rumpf, Rabah Nait Oufella
This review contains discussion of cannibalism and rape culture.
Neither of my alma mater’s had a culture of frats or hazing. Frosh week at my undergrad involved team building and ice breaking exercises, a tour, a concert, and whole lot of liquor. My grad school wasn’t much different. I mention this because Raw‘s inciting incident takes place during frosh week at a veterinary/medical school in France. Its hazing rituals are, from the moment they begin, terrifying; its culture of casual misogyny and hard-partying machismo so complete that, combined with the school’s isolated location, the film feels like a bit like Lord of the Flies for young doctors. It’s the kind of hazing that shows up in wild comedies–surely a parody–or news reports of initiation rites gone tragically wrong. Some Chad or Chet run wild. This is what happens in Raw, but the gone-wrongness extends to the culture of the school itself, because instead of a Chad, we have a Justine.
Justine arrives for her first week of vet school, seemingly younger than the other students, certainly a “whiz kid” who doesn’t quite fit in. Her fellow students are intimidated by her Hermione Granger comprehensive knowledge, drive, and lack of fear for tackling new academic challenges. Even some of her–male–instructors resent her, one going so far as trying to pressure her into confessing in a male student’s place. He cheated off her paper, but the professor would hate to lose a promising doctor. What if Justine just took the hit? But in contrast to her academic fearlessness, Justine is socially much shyer. She’s, well, innocent, in a school full of much less innocent and more cynical students, and she is under tremendous pressure from faculty, her fellow freshmen, and the upperclassmen to conform.
In Raw, conformity means a reduction of Justine’s blazing intellect, a planing down of every edge that doesn’t quite fit the school’s mold, and most importantly, a performance of raw sexuality on command. She should dress “like a slut” when the upperclassmen say so. She should make out with this person. Fuck this one. Her vegetarianism is a sticking point and not just because one key initiation ritual involves being splattered with animal blood and another consuming raw animal flesh–it seems to them prim, perhaps even childish. To become an adult Justine must eat flesh, get drunk, loosen up, and eat flesh.
I said that the hazing is terrifying from the start. It begins with masked figures storming into the freshman dorm and dragging students out into the hall. They are given no time to dress, pushing and shoved into line. Screamed into obedience and made to file down packed stairs, through darkened tunnels–the tension ratchets higher and higher until it breaks, with the students being pushed into an underground rave. Ah, so fun, right? But Justine is no less tense, and neither are we. The score transitions neatly into frenetic party music and the lighting and camera work is alienating. It’s at this point that Justine is reunited with her older sister, also a vet student and until then MIA. Alex enters the narrative at a point where Justine is feeling alienated and immediately offers more of the same–rather than comforting her sister, she encourages her, bullies her, to try harder to fit in. We know then that something is very wrong both with Alex and with this school.
The hook of the film, you may already know, is that sometime during frosh week, Justine is turned into an involuntary cannibal. I won’t tell you how it happens or how this transformation unfolds. I won’t tell you either, how things turn out for her. It plays out slowly, with creeping dread that does not disperse even with the closing credits. First time director, Julia Ducournau, is in no hurry to get to the gore, because in Raw, the gore, while brutal enough to have caused some audience members to faint during its North American premiere at TIFF, is not the focus. The meaning of the act is more important than act itself; Justine’s cannibalism is treated with similar interest to long lingering shots of animal dissection and animal vulnerability in the face of human medicine. It’s a point she makes early in the film. There isn’t really much difference between animals and humans after all.
Is the hazing the cause of everything? Yes and no. There are other things going on in Raw than just the school drama. Justine and Alex’s relationship soured long before Alex left to attend the school. And their parents, who we meet in the films long open when they drop Justine off at school, aren’t quite warm. Their mother is assertive, at times to the point of being aggressive, particularly when a restaurant serves Justine meat in her vegetarian meal. Their father is perhaps a little distant, a little cynical in an affectionate way. Nothing seems bad, exactly. But Ducournau and cinematographer Ruben Impens inject these early scenes with a little upwardly mobile, domestic ennui, and as the countryside is enclosed in the brutalist architecture of the campus, which the parents, also graduates of the school, call “a little shabbier” than they remember, we get the sense that Justine is walking into a trap. One that her parents delivered her to.