Raw is a shocking and stylish coming-of-age film, writes Darren Bevan
Already the enfant terrible of the festival scene after viewers at Cannes apparently fainted and vomited during screenings, stylistically nourishing body horror Raw may have already put some off.
However, this French-language thriller is more one of coming-of-age, self-acceptance, sibling rivalry and the usual outsider-trying-to-fit-in story that cinema so often delivers.
The waifish Garrance Mareillier (who carries more than a passing visual reference to Zoey Deutch via way of Isabelle Adjani) is Justine, who, as the film begins, is heading to enrol in the veterinary college frequented by generations of her family.
At a roadside cafe, there’s an uproar when her mother discovers the mashed potatoes Justine’s been served come with a sausage within. Surely, no cause for concern – however, Justine and all her family shun the carnivorous ways and are staunch vegetarians.
Dropped at the college, Justine is thrown into a brutal hazing ceremony. Forced on all fours, and herded like cattle to an abattoir, the first year students are dropped deep into a world of work, partying, hedonistic excess and plenty of flesh on show.
Justine reunites with her sister, Alexia (Ella Rumpf) who has been at the college for a few years. Initially reticent, the duo reform and repair some of the brittle bridges that scatter siblings – before an unlikely bond is discovered and a hunger awoken in Justine…
Raw may have at its core a tale of cannibalism, and there’s certainly enough pleasures of the flesh put upon the screen, but the hybrid of horror and occasional shocks is more riddled with an atmosphere of unease and suspense than an outright desire to induce nausea in its audience.
It’s perhaps pertinent if you are of a queasy disposition to take degrees of caution, but certainly the gore on the screen is a lot less effective or bloody than Raw‘s reputation would suggest.
More startling is director Ducournau’s commitment to this fearless debut; it pulls together elements of every coming-of-age film you’ve seen.
From elements of Ginger Snaps to the hedonism of Trainspotting, via way of startling and striking imagery (some of it ripped from Carrie), the film crackles with visual flair throughout.
It helps that Mareiller’s aloofness sells the other-worldly edges of what plays out, and as the rapacious hunger within is awoken, she manages to sell the almost feral transformation incredibly well and sympathetically as the principles tangle and conflict with the primal urges within.
From hints of her being seduced into the almost cult-like world of the pledges to looking at meat on a counter, Mareiller does more with little than you’d expect to see and the restraint adds much to her character who’s simultaneously coming of age and trying to find her place in the world. It helps that these themes are not new, and have been explored before – but rarely with the pertinence and female point of view leading the way.
The script hints a lot at what’s going on, and there are delicious double entendres that come to life as the film ends – indeed Justine’s told that “an animal that’s tasted flesh isn’t exactly safe,” but there’s a studious once-over with Raw that almost veers into parody in the final cinematic furlong.
It’s not that the gore hits a crescendo, more that the score hits a one-louder approach that threatens to topple the audaciousness of what’s already played out. Certainly, Ducournau would have benefited from being a little more hands-off as the film veers towards its darkly twisted denouement.
With escalating sibling rivalry at its core, Raw is feral and visceral in parts, drowning its coming-of-age observations and cannibalism in its female point of view.
Coupled with a fevered lead whose dead eyes hint at the conflict and the primal hunger within, Raw is certainly a film not for all tastes. But for those willing to surrender themselves to its deft stylish touches, and its hints of horrors as well as its outright taste for shocks, it’s one hell of an experience, and one hell of a fiery debut.
Cast: Garrance Mareillier, Ella Rumpf
Director: Julia Ducournau
Running time: 1 hour, 39 minutes