Each month, we will induct a new film into the Panda Collection, our archive of great films that raise challenging questions. This month’s film is Julia Ducournau’s Raw.
For many thrill seekers, Halloween is a month-long holiday, filled with Jack-o-Lanterns, spook houses, and horror films. A prime October Saturday night involves navigating a man-made “haunted” maze or watching the latest scary release, Paranormal Activity 57. These intense activities often occur with a group of friends or an unwilling little sibling. They are rarely planned for solo execution because who wants to be scared by themselves?
When curling-up for a solo Netflix viewing, I often avoid horror films with startling music, clowns, and murderers. But horror, especially in October, is not always overruled when alone. After reading reviews of Raw, a 2016 Julia Ducournau film, I was swayed for an impromptu watch by myself. Katie Rife, a reviewer for The A.V. Club, gave the French film an A- grade, stating, “The strongest of the female-led films I’ve screened so far at the festival is Raw, Julia Ducournau’s beautifully realized, symbolically rich, and disturbing erotic meditation on primal hungers of all kinds.” Several other suggestive reviews could also describe 50 Shades of Grey, but the 90% approval score on Rotten Tomatoes, five international awards, and “universal acclaim” status, indicate that the director valued quality over pornography.
Raw begins with the horror of adolescence, a time of awkward exchanges, self-definition, hormones, and acne. Two parents drive their brilliant 16-year-old, Justine (Garance Marillier), to her freshmen dormitory at veterinary school. Justine enters her new home with a suitcase and a frown. She isn’t completely unfamiliar with the landscape though, since her older sister, Alexia (Ella Rumpf), also attends the school.
At first, Justine feels grounded in the rules of her upbringing but also lives in an environment that challenges them, an experience of many college freshman. We see Justine resist and adapt to the school’s social expectations. During the first week, she forces herself to swallow a raw duck kidney in a sadistic hazing ritual led by older veterinarian students. She initially refuses for obvious reasons and more subtly to adhere to her family’s strict vegetarian diet. After compromising vegetarianism, Justine discovers a primal hunger for flesh and blood and quickly dismisses old eating habits for meat. Late night trips for kabobs evolve into midnight snacks of raw chicken breast while her roommate watches in bewilderment. Her behavior is shocking. Even Justine’s physical body reacts adversely to the change through nausea and a spreading rash.
She crosses the line between animal and human after an accident involving Alexia, who loses an index finger. The literal finger food spurs an obsessive renaissance for the character and squeamish reactions from viewers. That’s right; Justine eats her sister’s finger with nearly an hour left of the movie.
Justine’s cannibalistic curiosity and hunger coincides with her coming-of-age and sexual awakening, which evolves from dancing in front of her mirror to biting her own arm during sex. The first college party horrifies the new student as she’s awkwardly bumped by grinding hips and overflowing solo cups until seeking refuge under her twin sheets. However, as the semester continues and her eating habits change, Justine discovers various appetites in her quests from party to bedroom. She explores new, sometimes drunken, territory and cannot shake the urge for more adventures.
Aside from directing sexual metaphors and gore, Julia Ducournau offers a well-paced, artful work with a frightening degree of facility. Justine’s evolution is an evolution; we feel shocked by her actions but not caught off guard by a rushed plot. Ducournau also employs beautiful color composition, not the norm in dark horror films. We see a seven-minutes-in-heaven game involving buckets of blue and yellow paint, crimson splatters on white lab coats, and leafy, green tree canopies – all captured at a gray, drab public institution.
Ducournau’s work surpasses the cliques of horror – startling music, ghosts, haunted houses, and clowns. While I did not scream or need to hold someone’s hand during my solo viewing, I certainly squirmed, winced, and admired the frightening masterpiece.