Julia Ducournau’s daring debut can be described as a coming-of-age film about a docile kid from a strict family struggling to cope up with the wildness of life at veterinary college, gradually losing her grip on reality as she experiences the pitfalls that come from her newfound freedom. It’s a fast-paced college centric film which somehow designs a uniquely disturbing world without specifically dedicating time to showing the world or the people, and focuses largely on the central plot. Exhilarating from start to finish, as the depravity gradually rises, the film gives you no space to breathe. However disconcerting the content may be, the thriller-like narration just propels you further into the uncomfortable realm till the film is suddenly over on a mind-blowing cliffhanger revelation.
The nonchalance with which it approaches the horror angle, with just some, that too very subtle, foreshadowing of what’s to follow sets Raw apart. The light colour palette and the bright lighting along with the clinical narration of the story of her adjusting to life, hide the darkness lurking beneath the surface, just like the protagonist’s upbringing hid the darkness lurking within the women in her family. However matter-of-fact the storytelling is, the characterisation perfectly embodies the viewer’s anxiety and disgust. The protagonist is palpably repulsed by her own cravings and it reflects in her actions. The acceptance of the fact that these urges are natural, is painstakingly slow, and it’s difficult to distinguish between reconciliation and surrender at that point.
The disconcerting nature of the journey of self-discovery seems to be the primary theme of Raw. It starts with getting scandalised, based on intrusive thoughts. Often however, they dictate actions and it’s then that self-acceptance becomes particularly difficult. However, morality is absurdly relative. In the grand scheme of things, if you’re different, but don’t hamper the natural order of functioning, you belong in society. For those with anti-social urges however, deserve their own form of self-acceptance. It’s this line by which we distinguish between weird and normal that Raw blurs. In some ways it functions like a euphemism for queerness but that might be unintentional. Either way, the struggle to love oneself despite seemingly terrible impulses, is well explored, especially through the apparent ease with which the protagonist’s sister handles the urges.
Since the horror aspect of the film is psychological, and deals with the relatable problem of self-acceptance, instead of relying on jump scares, it is more imposing. There’s no defined boundary between horrifying and real. The lack of reliance on the supernatural, or even the psychedelic, makes the film raw, pun intended. The body horror isn’t even metaphorical, and the dramatic depiction of cannibalism that somehow also seems to accept it, is the primary reason why this film falls under the horror genre. Conventionally, it could be designed as ominous or melodramatic, but it’s actually very self-aware about its unique take on the topic. Expression of latent identity, hidden under layers of learnt repression, is simultaneously relieving and disconcerting, and this plays on the uncomfortable aspect of that experience, by making it about a socially unacceptable behaviour, thus questioning how we define what is right, and whether we should.
More than being scary, the visuals of the film are nauseating, which makes it impossible to detach yourself. Plus, the sudden dive into the horror angle of the story, which is absolutely unexpected, makes an impression. The story up till then already gets you to invest in the character, and before you know it, you’re rooting for a cannibal to find acceptance in her own skin. However, you’re simultaneously extremely uncomfortable because of the scenes. The protagonist eating up her sister’s severed finger isn’t a visual I’ll ever forget, for example. The actually horrifying parts apart from that, are the use of road accidents to ‘hunt’, or gobbling while making out, among other scenes, and the fact that it’s based on a very real habit of some actual people, is what makes it a psychological horror.
Almost-shiny white labcoats, dreamy violet lighting, lush green scenery, buckets of bright red blood, most of the colours define an aesthetic not usually associated with a horror film, which further subverts tropes, apart from not relying on jump scares, or being essentially a real depiction of actual behavioural patterns. The self-acceptance arc beautifully manifests in the mirror kiss sequence of the film, followed by the smudging of the lipstick, visually reflecting the gradual appreciation for who she essentially is. Moreover, the sexual nature of her affliction is a very interesting side, not previously seen. The female gaze in the cinematography, which reflects how she perceives a man, not completely through the lens of infatuation, but also in the context of literally eating them, makes for an intriguing watch.
The disorienting effect of such inexplicable and scandalizing urges is so palpable primarily because she comes from a family of strict vegans. The fact that despite that upbringing, she secretly craves the most depraved meat on the planet, is what accentuates the struggle-with-self-acceptance aspect of the story. And her journey into gradually giving up her struggle guided by her sister, and eventually allowing herself to act, almost beyond limits, on her impulses, could help the viewer reconcile their own struggle with seemingly depraved latent instincts. Despite having such nauseating sequences as biting and eating flesh while fighting, the film is heartening too, especially through the reconciliation of the two sisters, and also the elder teaching the younger, because eventually if you have such urges you’ve got to give into them to survive.
Raw is just as thrilling as it is horrifying. It progresses like a thriller for that matter, as one after the other mishap befalls the protagonist, fuelled by her finally expressing herself. And there’s the cliffhanger climax, with the revelation which changes how you interpret the struggle. The visual is particularly horrible, with the bite marks and scars on the torso, but the ending increases the intrigue too. Eventually, even if the film is disturbing to watch, it makes such an impression that you could want to re-watch it. In fact, the layered writing, with the euphemism of queerness, and the gradual descent into absolute chaos, gives Raw a lot of re-watch value. It’s definitely my favourite horror film of all time.
Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.