by Seamus MulhernThe most surprising part about Raw is not the violence. It’s not the disturbing imagery. It’s not that it’s a debut. It’s not that it’s a horror film directed by a woman (which is depressingly rare in this industry). It’s not even the fact that when I first bought my ticket, I was given a barf bag. The most surprising part about Raw is that someone made a film about a college freshman becoming a cannibal and created one of the best coming-of-age films since Boyhood.
Our protagonist, Justine (Garance Marillier), is a French teenager entering her first year of veterinary school. She’s pretty straight edge by most standards. She doesn’t drink, have sex, or eat meat — due to being raised as a vegetarian. During a hazing ritual — where she’s required to eat sheep liver — she discovers that meat tastes good. Really good. So good that she asks her roommate to take her to get sub sandwiches from a gas station. So good that she gets caught stealing burgers from the dining hall. So good… that she may or may not be willing to try human meat.
So, the movie’s about cannibalism. But, the movie’s not about cannibalism. Justine is a girl who has lived a relatively sheltered life and she happens to find something taboo that she enjoys. It’s a relatively common narrative that’s taken to its natural extreme.
Raw is about discovering yourself. And where better to set a film about discovering yourself than college? It’s where you discover what kind of person you are. How hard you can party. It’s a place where you can fully embrace your sexaulity. Where you can try new things and feel like yourself for the first time in your life. For some, it’s awesome.
Unfortunately, for others, it’s awful.
It can be a place where you discover you don’t fit in. It can be where you develop an addiction. Where you lose people that you thought were close to you. Where you can’t even find people to become close with in the first place. Where you get your first C. Where you pass out on a couch at a fraternity. Where you feel like you don’t belong. Raw is designed to explore these spectrums. Justine is slowly discovering what she enjoys. The tragedy comes in when she learns that what she enjoys isn’t exactly healthy.
While the struggles of the film may be relatable, it’s also quite agonizing to watch at times. I’m a seasoned horror fan, but there were a few scenes that I watched through my fingers. It’s not a particularly gory or outlandish film. However, the horror comes from how real everything feels. A vomiting scene draws allusions to bulimia. A scene of intense scratching caused by food poisoning reminded me of an anxiety attack. Even the scenes of cannibalism are filmed in a way that feel vaguely sexual.
The disturbing nature of the film is intensified by its sound design. The crunches, the biting, and the squishing are all horrifically captured, but fit beautifully within the context of the film. On top of that, the score is fantastic. It’s droning and invasive, but creates a sense of dread in the viewer. Every musical sting feels like a punch in the stomach.
Similarly, the cinematography adds to the disturbing nature of the piece. Every nauseating sequence is shot up-close-and-personal. The party scenes feel chaotic and overstimulating. On top of that, the drab and grey look of the film allows the bloodier sequences to pop more. It creates a strange paradox where the grossest moments are also the most visually appealing.
Possibly the greatest feat that Raw manages to pull off is its unique perspective. Like I said, this is a horror film directed by a woman and, as such, we get an honest portrayal of Justine growing into her idea of womanhood. We get glimpses of unique situations rarely seen in teen films, let alone horror ones. In particular, a scene where Justine is undergoing waxing was so tense and horrifying that a few people left the theater for a couple of minutes. It’s not just the horror scenes either. There’s an absolutely transfixing moment when Justine dances in front of a mirror, trying her hardest to look sexy. It’s disturbing, but also oddly charming and kind of humorous. It felt real.
Raw is not a film for those with weak stomachs. It’s one of the most genuinely disturbing films I’ve seen in the past few years. However, those uneasy moments are well-earned in an utterly beautiful story of blossoming womanhood, which is something I never thought I’d say about a cannibal horror film.
4.5 out of 5 stars