Horror held firmly in the female gaze rends great power from the dark places of sexual awakening. A startlingly powerful debut.
Once in a while there comes a directorial debut so staggeringly assured, fresh and vital that it inspires a desire not only to re-watch immediately, but also a burning desire to see what on earth they will come up with next.
Last year that happened at the Sydney Film Festival where I was wonderfully discombobulated by writer/director Brady Corbet’s disorientating alternate history The Childhood of a Leader. This year it’s the turn of French auteur Julia Ducournau to bamboozle me with her bolt out of the blue, the Cannes Film Festival FIPRESCI Prize-winning body horror Raw (Grave), a deliriously stylish and smart first bow.
Held firmly in the female gaze, far too rare for the horror genre, Raw wastes no time in shocking, opening with a graphic car not-so-accident that recalls the first gasp of Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Lobster though, unlike that narrative capsule, we will return to the scene of this carnivorous crime.
Also wowing in her first feature, after appearing in Ducournau’s 2011 short Junior, the stellar Garance Marillier plays Justine, an enrolling first-year veterinary student hailing from a family of both veterinarians and vegetarians. In an eerie premonition of what’s to come, she discovers a sickly fragment of sausage in her mash at a roadside cafe, eliciting a flicker of nerves from her parents (Joana Preiss and Laurent Lucas). They’re driving her to the same rural university that currently houses older sister Alexia (an also magnificent Ella Rumpf).
If Justine expected support from Alexia on arrival then she’s sorely mistaken, as her sibling will not intervene in a series of brutally patriarchal hazing rituals. These include, but are not limited to, terrifying midnight abductions and room destructions, horse blood-drenchings a la that other great coming-of-age horror Carrie and, most disturbing for Justine, being forced to consume raw rabbit liver. Suddenly that sausage isn’t looking so bad.
Devouring this sacrificial, ceremonial meat sparks an unusual transformation in Justine. Previously so straight-laced even her cantankerous lecturer bristles at her perceived superiority when she is compelled by him to snitch on buff gay roommate Adrien (Rabah Nait Oufella, Girlhood) for copying her test answers.
Adrien is, at first, a reasonably solid ally in this alien world of arcane rites, though one less than respecting of the personal boundaries broken by bringing boys back to their shared room. The taste of blood, however, soon comes between them. Did the liver change Justine in her very DNA, or has it awoken something terrible that has long lain dormant?
At first breaking out in a fiery rash that sees her lashing around in bed scratching until her blood screams free following feverish dreams, when it eventually passes she is a different creature, one who craves raw chicken from their shared fridge before beginning to size up the larger animals intended for veterinary practice. Adrien’s body, too, is fair game, as is that of her sister, though granted in a very different way, in what is certainly the film’s most startlingly unforgettable scene.
Cinematographer Ruben Impens and composer Jim Williams work hand-in-hand with Ducournau in crafting the recognisably hedonistic world of teenagers sets loose from parental structures, soaked in a liberating yet occasionally damagingly intoxicating freedom. Marillier runs riot with it in a role that mutates from sacrificial lamb to ravenous wolf. Placing the hunger of female sexual awakening within the context of something powerfully primal, Raw is a laceration, gristle and bone, of the monstrous feminine, where, gender, sexuality and societal constructs are stripped bare like a bloody finger.
Darkly comic, it is also, at times, intensely confronting, never more so than a mouth-dropping inversion of expected norms in a sexual encounter that pushes hard against the threatening place where consent is removed. And yet amidst the spiralling transformation of cannibalistic desire, Raw is never less than fully human in its depiction of a young woman trying to make her way in helter-skelter world that sometimes wants to eat us whole. I cannot wait to devour Ducournau’s triumph once more and whatever richly seasoned feast she serves up next.
Stephen A Russell @SARussellwords