During her first week at university, Justine gets an unnatural and uncontrollable taste for flesh after undergoing a strange initiation.
So this is it; the infamous Raw that shocked audience members into fainting after a screening at the Toronto International Film Festival. Its depiction of cannibalism so intense and realistic people had to be stretchered away; this is truly abhorrent cinema it is thought. Is it really that gruesome, gory and difficult to watch? At times, yes. If you’ve never seen a cannibal film in your life, then you’re jumping in the deep end by starting with this one. However, if you’ve seen Cannibal Holocaust, We Are What We Are, Eat, Hannibal or any other film about eating people, you’ll find Raw a little bit gross, but far from the nightmare that you may have heard it be described. If anything, it’s wittier more than it is disturbing; with writer-director Julia Ducournau ensuring this isn’t solely a tasteless horror show by injecting Raw with more than a few playful lines of dialogue.
Getting straight into the icky side, I’ll say that Raw is a tiny bit vile. A teenager getting a taste for flesh is always going to be hard to stomach. The effects are fantastic, gruesome and extremely realistic, but just keep telling yourself that this is only a film. She’s not really gnawing on a finger or craving the neck of one of her friends, but the nausea-inducing crunch sounds will convince you otherwise. As a work of technical achievement, Raw is fantastic. In terms of pure, skin-crawling, vomit-inducing terror, it’s mediocre. Much of the cannibalism happens off-screen and what is delivered to us tends to be the morning after the night before. Like a bad hangover, Justine tends to wake up surrounded by the remnants of her drink-fuelled escapades and it is up to her – and us – to put the pieces together and imagine what she got up to. For that reason, Raw is immediately disappointing in terms of gore, because we aren’t shown the good (bad?) stuff. Some horror fans and avid viewers of the grotesque will find this quite tame and inadequate when compared to films that truly shock like, amongst others, Inside, Antichrist and A Serbian Film.
Propelled by a strong performance from Garrance Marillier as Justine, Raw’s cannibalism theme could be removed and the film would still play out the same. Beneath the gross surface that is preoccupied with repelling and causing controversy, Raw is a surprisingly touching and feminine tale of approaching adulthood and struggling with identity. Justine arrives at university a virgin and her desire for flesh could be read as her want for human contact. She finds her love for meat the more she attends parties and the more alcohol she consumes, so it’s not difficult to swap her need for flesh with a need for, well, sex. She’s told she needs to dress more “slutty”, so she borrows her older sister’s cocktail dress, sings a song about whores and sleeping with dead people and then smears red lipstick over her mouth as her cannibalistic tendencies start to bleed through.
When she’s devouring human body parts Justine seems at peace. When compared to the fast-paced editing and frenzy of parties filled with drinking and making out with strangers, beds being thrown out of windows, the apparently most difficult scenes – you know, the cannibalism – are handled with care, presented as breaks in the mania of reality. The pace of the film is slowed down, so that we have time to get our own teeth into Justine’s hunger games. Aside from being obviously horrible, this is Justine’s means of escape and attempt to make sense of the crazy world around her. In order to escape from the pressures of university and the expectations of being a young adult, Justin chooses to literally consume humanity in an attempt to fit in. She becomes more confident and extroverted, riding high on the drug that is flesh-eating. However, where there are drugs there are comedowns and Justine’s crash back to earth is a big one.
Raw may not deliver on its promises of stomach-churning grossness and gore that will make you want to claw your eyes out or rinse them in bleach, but it’s a great film. As a comment on young adulthood and struggling with identity, it’s an impressive and memorable exploration that is held together by Marillier’s strong and, at times, brave performance. The moments that shock are wonderful, but far too few. If you’re after something truly sick, then this is not it, but there’s nothing wrong with Raw’s intentions to be more than just cannibal carnage.
Words: Jessy Williams (@JessyCritical)