Writer and musician currently living in Jakarta
'Raw' made headlines after several viewers fainted at its midnight screening at the Toronto International Film Festival. (Youtube/File)
“He treated me like a piece of meat” is a commonly heard turn of phrase used to describe female objectification and abuse. As a vivid analogy for the callous expression of carnal desires, it works because of the way humans so often treat our sources of protein. In fact, “carnal” and “carnivore” share the same etymological root, the Latin word for flesh, so it’s no stretch of the imagination to see how in Julia Ducournau’s Raw desires for flesh become a cypher for desires of the flesh. Although in Raw, these desires for flesh are specifically for human flesh.
Justine (Garance Marillier) is a shy, precocious student who has just started at a veterinary science faculty. It is the first time she has lived away from the shelter of her doting parents, with whom she shares a strictly vegetarian diet. That is until a first-week hazing ritual in which she is forced to eat raw offal triggers a strange rash and an incipient craving for human flesh. With her older sister Alexia (Ella Rumpf), a hard-partying senior at the same faculty, acting as both her mentor and tormentor, she enters a passage of exploration and humiliation.
One does not need to look too hard to see how all this works as a metaphor for a young girl’s coming of age and concomitant sexual awakening. Justine’s rash and accompanying sickness is a stylized, extreme representation of the distressing onset of puberty’s physical changes. In one scene Justine vomits up a large, tangled strand of her own hair into a toilet. Assuming she is bulimic, a girl in the adjacent cubicle gives her some tips on more effective vomiting when they meet at the taps.
The frenzied outburst of cannibal lust is similarly a stylized, extreme representation of a young adult’s uncharted desires. Like many young people caught between desire and guilt, these cause her to spiral out of control trying to contain this feeling of claustrophobia in her own skin, to borrow a line from Chris Kraus. When she eats human flesh, her face conveys the same moral confusion and shame of a person torn between moral limits and more conventional desires.
Both female leads are brilliant, conveying with subtle intensity the vagaries of their tender age. And the way that Alexia simultaneously becomes her younger sister’s guide and rival only consolidates this coming-of-age metaphor. It is a kind of relationship that many share with older siblings in their teenage years.
Ducournau is equally brilliant in the director’s seat. She makes the austere setting of the university exude a looming, macabre atmosphere throughout and each of the film’s many visually stunning scenes is taut with tension. This tension builds dramatically but doesn’t come to a head in some grand climax. Rather, it all ends abruptly in an understated but poignant short finale defined by an act of consumption that finally goes too far.
Raw made headlines after several viewers fainted at its midnight screening at the Toronto International Film Festival. This may seem like a brilliant publicity stunt, but it could just as easily have been unscripted. So if you need to be told again this is a cannibal movie, perhaps prepare a chuck bucket if you are squeamish at the sight of people nibbling on fingers. But don’t let the finger-nibbling throw you off; Raw is a gore fest, but none of it feels gratuitous. The blood and guts is an essential part of the film’s analogy that growing up really is horrifying and messy. (asw)
Raw is now available on Amazon Video.
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