Just a few years ago, I sat down to watch Jennifer Kent’s masterful horror film, The Babadook, for the first time. The opening montage of scenes featured no jump scares; only the suffocating claustrophobia of being a single parent with a particularly clingy child. By the time the opening title appeared, the film had me rapt with attention. I sat enveloped in its spell, tense but also giddy at the reminder that a horror film could do this. I had been an enormous fan of genre masterworks like Nicholas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now, Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, and Alfred Hitchcocks Psycho, but they were all more than three decades in the past. For years, it had seemed like a horror film’s ceiling was the fun but mild subversiveness of a film like Scream or the generally well-made moodiness of a film like The Ring. Horror could be good, but its virtues had always been mostly at the surface level during my lifetime (The Shining was released the year before I was born). With The Babadook, I was once more watching a film with a gripping sense of tone and aesthetics, but also one with stimulating themes and sharp writing and pitch-perfect acting. And, best of all, they were all working in tandem to create something cohesive and thought-provoking. The Babadook ended up as my fourth favorite film of 2014, a terrifically strong year for cinema. Only five months later, I went with a group of friends to Oakland’s New Parkway Theater to catch It Follows, and that was the night I happily joined my voice to the chorus that had been building. A question had started to reverberate in film culture, steadily rising in volume: will there be a horror renaissance? I still hesitate to say we are, only for fear of jinxing it. I only know that I loved It Follows and wrote a glowing review of it for my 2015 year-end list and that I got to go see David Egger’s bone-chilling subtly feminist The Witch about four months later. The Witch ended up in my Top 10 for 2016. And then, just a few months after that, came the one that barnstormed popular culture. If the aforementioned films were lovely, smart, rapturously received works of art, they were still mostly modest in their impact on wider audiences. But Get Out announced that the surge of nuanced, thematically rich horror films would now be heard and felt by everyone. It broke the box office, hijacked the zeitgeist, and recently made Jordan Peele the first black screenwriter to win the Oscar. Renaissance or no, the cultural juggernaut of Get Out would be more than enough to keep the streak of excellent horror films over the past four years alive and well. So, in this relatively weak year for film, let me give thanks for another gift. What an a marvelous cinema Christmas it is when one not only receives a future horror classic like Get Out, but a nifty, sharp horror debut like Raw as well. As the last film I saw for 2017 list-making purposes, Julia Ducourneau’s perceptive, character-based horror film was the one remaining present underneath the Christmas tree. And if Get Out was the year’s big, shiny Nintendo Switch, I was just as thrilled in a more modest way to have that last gift be something small but special (a great LP or a lovingly curated Criterion Collection DVD perhaps). Really though, Raw was that gift that was all the more perfect because I never knew I wanted it.
To cut through the mystery, that unexpected gift happens to be a coming-of-age college character study involving a fair degree of body horror, animal viscera, and a healthy dose of human flesh consumption. Raw is a visceral, nasty little film in the watching and I also find it to be quite sweet and humane in its own unique, skin-crawling way. The film takes place in Belgium, at a small medical college. In a short, seemingly elliptical scene, we see a car driving down a two-lane road somewhere out in the country. A young woman jolts out in front of the car. The motorist swerves to avoid hitting her and instead smashes fatally into a tree. In a wide shot, we see the young woman nonchalantly pull herself from the asphalt and approach the driver side door. The nature of her intentions is part of the central mystery of Raw, but the film immediately cuts to its primary plot. That would be the tale of Justine, a shy, 18-year old girl beginning her first semester at veterinary school. She is a slight, bookish young lady with a face that conveys innocent vulnerability. Her birdlike timidity seems to be accentuated all the more by her anxiety about spending her first evening in a college dorm. The first and most important thing we learn about Justine is that she is a vegetarian. Her parents, also vegetarians, are dropping her off at the same veterinary college where they met and fell in love, and her sister Alex is supposed to meet her and show her around. Alex never shows up, but Justine finds her later that night when the entire freshmen dorm is rousted from its sleep by upper classmen in balaclavas, who force them to attend their first college party. She also meets her roommate, a young, athletic gay man named Adrian. Justine walks bewildered around that first party, until her very inebriated sister finds her and pulls her into a dark room filled with animals in formaldehyde. It seems creepy but Alex is actually just there to show Justine pictures of former classes undergoing their first rite of passage: having animal blood dumped on them and taking their class photo. As disorienting as it all is, Alex tells Justine to look at the photo from their parents’ year, and to see how even their staunchly vegetarian mother looks happy covered in all that blood. It is an early acknowledgment that freshman life will be challenging, particularly at this very ritual-happy college. Still, even the most disgusting parts of growing up carry a sense of adventure and discovery. Less than 24 hours later, Justine is soaked in blood, repulsed but with something resembling a smile on her face. Her least pleasant challenge, however, comes a few minutes later when upper classmen force each and every freshmen to eat a raw rabbit kidney. Justine balks and insists she is vegetarian, but her sister coerces her into completing the ritual. Justine has an allergic reaction to the raw meat and the side effect is a truly revolting body rash, which is the first hint that this will be a gorily unsettling film, if you discount the floating animal fetuses, blood-soaked photos, and people eating animal entrails. One other side effect is that Justine suddenly starts to crave meat. She begins by trying to smuggle a hamburger patty out of the cafeteria and before long she is crouching in front of her roommate’s mini-fridge eating raw chicken cutlets. However, matters really come to head one night when Alex and Justine are drinking and Alex convinces her sister to do a bikini wax. During the inebriated waxing session, Alex accidentally cuts off one of her fingers. Alex feints and Justine calls 9-11 for help. Then she hangs up and looks at the finger. She lets some of the blood drip into her hand. Then she tastes it and she is overcome with hunger. She eats the entire finger and finishes it just in time for her sister to wake up and catch her. We come to learn that the two vegetarian sisters both share the same dark secret: an uncontrollable hunger for human flesh. We come to learn that Alex is the young woman who jumps in front of motorists, purposely causing fatal car crashes so she can feast on the victims. Without going into the entire plot, Raw is a film about going to college, experiencing things we thought we would never try, and trying to alternately contain and satiate new adult hungers. It is also about immersing ourselves in the environment of this college, which is a rather oozy, bloody, visceral place without any of the body horror, just by virtue of being a veterinary school.
And the blurred line of where the horror ends and the stickiness of young adult life begins is one of the first things Raw does well and often. If Ducourneau’s film did absolutely nothing else of thematic interest, it would still deserve praise for being one of the most impressionistically sharp depictions of college ever made. It is a vision of college, or wherever we happen to be when we first begin to experience the wider world, as a fetid, smelly, pussy breeding ground from which we emerge as fully formed adults. Granted, a great majority of the people I know did not undergo mysterious, strict rituals or have to obey strange, hierarchies as college students. Even the people I know who joined fraternities and sororities did not end their first week coated in cow blood or have to consume the vital organs of bunnies. Raw is what you might call hyperreal. It uses the uncomfortable, unpredictable tone that comes with horror to create what I would call an impressionistic portrait of college. Still, as strange and off kilter as that portrait is, there is something about it that feels utterly accurate on an emotional level. It uses the same sense of unease to illustrate the anxieties of early college life as it does to show the bloody transformation that only Justine and her sister have to go through. What all those strange, gross rituals are really about is the class that came before foisting their own phobias and aversions on the incoming class. I do not remotely approve of hazing or bullying in real life, but these rituals, as disgusting as they are, are never presented in a malicious way. The upper classmen are clearly winking at their freshman charges that all this pus and circumstance is part of the unnerving fun and discomfort of maturing, especially in a profession that will probably involve opening up animals on a daily basis. They are Puckishly rattling the cages of their young charges, freaking the daylights out of them while also letting them know what a gas it all is. Again, I would never condone pressuring someone to eat raw entrails, or covering two people in body paint and forcing them to blend their colors together in a makeout closet. But Raw is the strange case of a well-acted indie character film that is operating at an operatic pitch. It is a kind of subdued fever dream, all about the sticky thrills and chills of going swimming for the first time in life’s pungent swamp. The film’s ambiguous emotional register is captured in that enigmatic look on Justine’s face as she stands in her blood-drenched class photo: repulsed, a bit rankled, but also amused beyond belief. Raw presents college and adolescence in general as a kind of steamy, sensual haunted house. It is not always pleasant in any conventional sense, but there is pleasure and even growth experience in being frightened. It is a place to dip that first toe into the world’s pool of vice and to discover that there is smaller pool of it within us.
Raw is a terrific character study about finding the gleeful sinner inside ourselves. I think all the movie’s provocative, grisly imagery can be taken as metaphor about self-exploration and having new experiences. That said, the best thing about great horror films, even the most cerebral among them, is that they work on our senses. It is vital that we can have a nice, vile time just soaking in the surface details. In explaining what makes Raw such a strange, sickeningly poignant film, I do not want to give short shrift to how much I enjoyed just being jarred and grossed out by it. As Freud may have said during his heady, flesh-eating school days, sometimes a bloody detached finger is just a bloody detached finger. On some level, what the fluids and flesh and meat represent are fluids, flesh, and meat. Going just a bit deeper, I think they represent that time in a person’s life when one suddenly realizes, in a fundamentally adult way, that fluids and flesh are everywhere. Raw is partly about wallowing in a dank, disorienting world of blood, alcohol, sweat, body paint, and moist skin. Not all of it is pretty to look at. I would go so far as to say that most of it is just about the furthest thing from photogenic and that is also Ducourneau’s entire aim. This is not a film about seeing human vice as aesthetically pleasing. It is about showing appetites and obsessions as the queasy things they are. It is that queasiness that makes desire all the more fascinating. If we knew better, we might look at that gristly, glistening slab of meat and feel strange about sticking it in our mouths. We might look at a sweaty, clammy, stinky human body with antiseptic eyes and see it as a bag of fluids and dying skin. Raw shoots meat, both human and animal, in the least pretty way imaginable. It is a film about insatiable appetite that is the very opposite of appetizing. And that, the film says, is what is so marvelous about desire. It is what is so intriguing and powerful about appetite and lust; that our sense of arousal overrides any queasiness. Raw presents fluids and flesh as something both visceral and also powerfully, wonderfully intoxicating. And, like that bucket of blood dribbling down Justine’s face, I believe Julia Ducourneau wants to nauseate us while also giving us a perversely pleasurable tingle of awareness. Maybe life is a little gross when you look at it analytically. But reveling in life’s fetidness also has an uncanny way of making us feel completely alive.
What I find fascinating is how Raw handles young adulthood, exploring one’s self, and sex so deftly even before it reveals the full scope of its horror conceit. Justine’s new taste for flesh builds upon the film’s depiction of college as a place to learn new things about what we enjoy, but it also marks a departure from the earlier scenes of group indulgence. The more general scenes of college life are about joining the herd, the big party, but Justine comes to find that her appetites make her very different from everyone else. Everyone gorges, but not everyone desires the same things. Raw takes Justine through her timidness into a place of conforming to the excess of college life, and then it sends her sailing way past that into a place where she feels just as isolated as she did when she was a studious, taciturn vegetarian. Her burgeoning hunger for human flesh and the discovery that she is one of only two people at the school who share that hunger give the film an interest queer subtext, which I find welcome for multiple reasons. First, because we need more films that take on coming-of-age from that perspective. Secondly, because it makes Raw a more fully realized examination of what it is like to discover adult pleasure for the first time. It reminds us that, while anyone’s sexual awakening is bound to be a strange mixture of anxiety and delight, it must be especially bewildering to go through that rite of passage and feel like the only person in your small community who desires and hungers in that same way. What makes Raw so empowering in its visceral, grisly way is in what an interesting, grasping, sympathetic character Justine is. This has a lot to do with the notes of trepidation and lustful curiosity that newcomer Garance Marillier brings to the role, and how the former gradually gives way to the latter. A scene where Marillier lip synchs along with a female rapper in the mirror, while gyrating and putting on lipstick, is one of my favorite pieces of physical, facial acting all year. It is the image of a young woman still tentatively finding herself, but the hesitancy seems to erode a little bit with every movement of her body. Her performance is one of the years’ underrated gems of acting, just as surely as Raw is the year’s great, underseen piece of horror cinema. The truth of Raw is, that beneath all the flaking rashes, oozing cuts, pig fetuses, dog cadavers, and dismembered fingers; beneath all that beastly appetite is really just a well-observed character study about both fearing and loving our most honest selves. What makes me smile fondly is that it is fundamentally a sweet film if you boil it down to its tiniest kernel. What makes me laugh with demented glee is how Ducourneau has caked that sweet little kernel of self-acceptance in as much nasty goo as she can get her hands on. Knowing one’s self is a messy process.
We meet Justine when she is a dry, spotless young thing and we end the semester with her as the empowered, slightly more experienced flesh-eater she is meant to me. Of course, this course in life will not always be easy for her, and the film acknowledges as much. We end with a sly, nasty little that this will be difficult, but it also doubles as an acknowledgment that human beings find a way to roll with the scars and lumps that life deals them. There is an understated note of triumph and pride to her journey that the macabre tone of Raw would never explicitly signal. It is there to be read all the same. This is a film about the introverted bookworm in the woods learning the dark, scary, inconvenient, intriguing truth about herself, embracing that truth as fully as she can, and starting to boldly assert her new identity. The more I write about Raw, the more overwhelmingly positive I feel about it and about this rickety, uneven cinematic year in general. Any year with a horror film this trenchant, darkly witty, and compassionate towards outsiders is worth honoring. I always pray for as many unimpeachable masterpieces as possible in a given year, but I have to say that, year in and year out, the truth strength of the annual cinematic film crop is shared up by the films that don’t quite reach perfection; that strong supporting string of near-excellent films with their rough edges and oddly beautiful facets. I say “near-excellent” because to use the term “near-great” would imply that Raw is anything less than great, which would be an outright lie. She is a bold, idiosyncratic, hungry, artful beast. If Julia Ducourneau is the humble also-ran in this fine, historic fourth year of the 2010s Horror Renaissance, we underestimate her and her remarkable achievement at our own peril. If Raw is the film year’s quiet little sister, I would not dream of using it as a pejorative. Little sisters grow up to be bloody fierce women.