Stars: Garance Marillier, Ella Rumpf, Rabah Nait Oufella
Released: 7th April 2017 (UK)
Reviewer: Hannah Woodhead
Cinema’s fascination with cannibalism can be traced back decades, starting with the birth of the genre in Umberto Lenzi’s Il Paese del Sesso Selvaggio (The Man from the Deep River) and Ruggero Deadato’s notorious Cannibal Holocaust, frequently cited as an influence by directors including Eli Roth. Bringing something new to the table, so to speak, is no easy task – how does one find substance beyond the taboo topic of people eating each other? Many have tried and failed, including Roth, whose 2015 effort, The Green Inferno, was an underwhelming homage to the genre’s roots.
Raw is something else.
Newcomer Garance Marillier plays Justine, a vegetarian teenager from an austere household who enrolls at veterinary school, where she contends with grueling initiation rituals, difficult professors, and a fraught reunion with her elder sister. Her portrayal is vulnerable and moody, with Marillier creating in Justine a sympathetic yet dangerous protagonist – she’s serious and awkward, pushed out of her comfort zone by her newfound status as a university freshman, and further displaced by her creeping realisation that there’s something deeply wrong with her. She’s joined by Ella Rumpf as her outgoing, hellraising older sister Alexia, and Rabah Naït Oufella as Adrien, her gay roommate whom she finds herself attracted to. This young cast proves talented beyond their years; Rumpf, in particular, plays Alexia as a dangerous, charismatic and compelling force to be reckoned with.
The first feature from writer and director Juliet Ducournau, this is a coming-of-age film with serious bite, aching with teenage angst, stylistically sitting somewhere between Ginger Snaps, The Craft and Jai Tue Ma Mere. The sense of dread one feels watching as Justine’s fragile mental state unravels is powerful, particularly alongside Jim William’s incredible original score which employs striking strings, melancholy piano and the biblical overtones of organ music. Raw has that je ne sais quoi that many films try to find, but the French seem to excel at – it’s moody, dark, and brims with warped sensuality. You don’t have to be an adolescent cannibal to see yourself in Ducornau’s story, and in fact, there’s so much more at play than body horror.
When it debuted at Toronto International Film Festival in 2016, emergency medical treatment was required for several audience members who were shocked by the film’s disturbing graphicness. There’s no escaping the fact that Raw is exceptionally brutal, but never gratuitous, and although it has been defined by default as a horror film this seems incredibly limiting and will undoubtedly put some viewers off watching it. That’s a great shame since there’s so much more to the story than the gore that’s made the headlines. In particular, it’s refreshing to see a film within the subgenre in which women are not victims but aggressors, and in which the primary relationship is one between two sisters attempting to come to terms with their fate. Raw is fearless and unapologetic, grabbing you by the neck and refusing to let go.
Surely destined for cult classic status, it’s an exercise in cinematic boldness, beguiling to behold and a film that will take multiple viewings to digest.