In college, I knew a woman who was a few years older than the rest of the class. Not much older, just like 3 or 4. She lived in family housing with her husband and her infant son. Her story went that she was originally in college a couple years ahead of schedule, and had lived a sheltered life. Her freshman year, she went hog wild and rebelled as hard as she could, but didn’t have the education or street smarts to do it safely. Bing bang boom, she got pregnant and had a kid, and was now back to finish her degree. Thing was, the dude was kind of a lazy semi-abusive asshole, and she was having an affair with another male student. The thing is, her story isn’t unusual. I’ve heard this story told a bunch of different ways.: a sheltered kid gets to college where they experience the real world for the first time, and its all a little bit much.
That’s the essence of Raw, a viscerally grotesque horror movie that uses blood, raw meat and cannibalism to symbolize the allure of life, freedom and sexuality. Justine (Garance Marillier) is a pale and frail incoming freshman to an elite veterinary school in France. Her parents graduated from the school. Alexia (Ella Rumpf), her older sister, still attends the school. She’s practically seen as royalty. But, her parents have sheltered her all her life, making her eat as a vegetarian her whole life. When they eat at a cafeteria, there’s a meatball in her mashed potatoes, and her mother throws an embarrassingly protective fit at the server. Sheltered may be an understatement.
Apparently, French veterinary schools have extreme hazing rituals for all incoming freshmen. Here, they force the freshmen to party all night, dress in nightclub attire, spend all day covered in blood, eat raw rabbit kidneys, and otherwise spend time exposing them to life’s grand nature. Sex, drinking, and drugs abound. Once Justine gets her first taste of meat, she changes. She claws her way out of her skin. She’s tempted by the allure of forbidden meat. Humiliated by her desires, Justine resorts to trying to steal hamburger out of the cafeteria, going on secret field trips for shwarma, and secretly eating raw chicken in the middle of the night. And then there’s Alexia. Her sister, having gone through this before, teaches her how to feed off her desires…the problem being that her sister is a bit out of control herself. There will be blood.
Did I mention that this is a riot? The theater I was in had big reactions that conflicted with each other. Half the audience was in hysterics, the other half was shocked and disgusted. There was at least two walkouts. Some were trying to process the film at the bus stop. Stories of people fainting greatly overexaggerate the emotional intensity, because Raw deals in viscera more than emotional wreckage. At the heart of Raw is the intersection of coming of age, awakening sexuality, temptation, addiction, and the intensity of life. Instead of Carrie White getting dumped on by a bucket of pig’s blood to humiliate and isolate her from the school, every incoming class gets gallons of blood dumped on them to bring them together in mutual recognition that everybody is going to go through the exact same humiliation. Whether it’s Alexia hilariously trying to teach Justine how to do a bikini wax, a ritual she’s done on herself for years or Justine walking in on her gay roommate getting head, we all go through the exact same shit. But, as we saw with Carrie White, these emotions are exponentially more intense for the sheltered ones.
Though necessarily filled with nubile flesh in various states of undress, Writer/Director Julia Ducournau puts a distinctly feminine spin on it. Take for example the shower scenes of Carrie and Raw. Brian DePalma opens Carrie with a shower scene filmed in a hazy lusty slow-motion pan that feels like a pornographic film crossed with a soap commercial. His camera lingers over girls playing towel games in the locker and Carrie White’s hands rubbing all over her body while a soft trumpet plays in the background. Raw has many shower scenes as well, but Ducournau focuses on the hair, the face, or the back. She’s not interested in lusting after Justine, so much as focusing on the symbolism of her trying to clean the blood or paint off her body and soul.
And, really, the B-Plot of this film is two women fighting over who gets to fuck a gay man. College is a time for queer and hetero experimentation. Julia flips the script of men trying to change a lesbian through sex (I’m looking at you, Chasing Amy and Goldfinger) by reversing the genders. Does it become any more OK here? How do we feel about it when women are actively pursuing men? How do we feel when that man, in his second line, proclaims himself a faggot? What if her cries out “I didn’t spend 20 years hiding just to have sex with women” in the middle of the movie? Ducournau is actively testing our gendered responses to women trying to change a gay man by using him as a “safe” object and an object that’s “out of reach.”
Though gender and feminism is all over this film, it makes absolutely no big deal about it. This is a story about sheltered women coming into their life in a big way…with all the blood and shit and piss and cannibalism that comes with it. It’s a fascinating movie, and whatever your reaction…it probably isn’t going to be the wrong one. It’s a fascinating film that will strike many people’s personal chords…once you get past the viscera of life.