Taking her first steps into the adult world, Raw sees Justine (Garance Millar) follow her mother and older sister to veterinary college. It doesn’t take long for the hazing to begin as balaclaved “elders” trash Justine’s halls and force the fresh meat to undertake a gruelling series of tasks before they can become part of the group. First up, eat a raw rabbit liver which, as a devout vegetarian, proves difficult for Justine but after she buckles and eats the meat she begins to discover a new appetite.
While it would be doing Raw a disservice to simply label it as a cannibal horror film, it’s use of cannibalism as an allegory for female sexual awakening feels tired. It’s confrontational with its not-so-subtle feminist take on body horror, attempting to be intelligent with it’s subtext but fails to be as engrossing as it thinks it’s being. In one scene, Justine is standing in front of a mirror. She’s awkward, gangly, but then she starts to dance, hips swaying provocatively like a visual cue to the audience to clue us in on the metaphor that she is now a woman who’s found her rhythm thanks to her new found appetite. It’s lacking in the masterful subtlety previous films that have dabbled in the same subject matter have managed to accomplish.
For a first time director, Julia Ducournau attacks the process with extreme force. Raw’s opening act is relentlessly gripping yet as the film begins to unfold it loses focus, religiously living by the genre semantics it struggles to break, resulting in a predictable trudge. Ducournau never bites off more than she can chew, she instills the film with clear and distinct visuals, but she never does anything exciting with the subject matter. The transformation of the vetting school into an isolated microcosm by Ducournau, takes a microscope to the university experience yet creates a universe that’s too otherworldly to truly relate to, with all night raves where people drink excessively, take pills and lick each other’s eyeballs. The grey, dull setting creates a sense of detachment from the ‘real world’ which is perhaps what the director was aiming for, in an attempt to display the displacement you have while at university, but it seems too removed to engage with.By deciding to concentrate her attention on the physical and mental effects of a cannibalistic appetite, Ducournau lays Justine bare as she examines the vulnerability of adolescence. Millar’s performance is at its best when playing off the sibling rivalry between her and her older sister, Alexia (Ella Rumpf), offering the film’s best use of its dark sense of humour. Yet by herself, Millar never offers the film the secure anchor it needs.
For a film that has had to have medical experts called to cinemas in order to treat people throwing up due to the film’s more extreme scenes, it’s not that gory. Justine may eat raw flesh, drink blood and dissect dead animals but it doesn’t feel any more visually gut-wrenching than any other gruesome scene in any other horror film. It says a lot about the film’s gore factor that the most wincing scene sees Justine pull out a molar and that’s the queasiest the visuals get.
Raw aims to be more complex than your typical cannibal film but never manages to achieve its desired goals. Instead, the film’s subtext and allegories are over exposed and tired, leaving you with a film that has little new to offer you. Ducournau displays promise behind the camera with some alluring visuals – with a better script she could produce a masterpiece.