Why is it French films always seem more real? A part of me wants to say that an American version of Raw might be a bit anaemic, lacklustre or gratuitous, but the truth is, I think French (and European) films that are picked up for distribution in the UK fit a certain stereotype we have of continental cinema—and not necessarily a bad one.
Raw fits the same mould as a lot of other “gritty” European films that UK critics have gone wild over in the last few years, such as A Prophet and Let the Right One In. They don’t shy away from showing extreme violence on-screen, but nor do they trivialize it. Added to that, European lack of inhibition over sexuality, puberty and nudity makes these films seem all the more shocking to Brits and Americans—think of Bertolucci’s The Dreamers, for example. Allegedly, Raw made certain viewers at Toronto Film Festival faint and dry-heave in the aisles when it was first screened there. I wonder if anyone fainted at Cannes.
For those not in the know, the film follows an idealistic young veterinary student and devout vegetarian, Justine, through the first few weeks of her time at vet school. During—at least by my tame standards—the world’s most extreme hazing, she and the other freshers are forced to eat raw rabbit liver, and she soon finds she has a taste for meat. Following an accident with a pair of scissors that leaves her sister’s finger severed, she “experiments” further, leading to the first of many faint-inducing scenes of furtive cannibalism.
That in itself is enough of a premise for a good film, executed properly. But director Julia Ducournau is too smart to leave it at that. Cannibalism in Raw becomes a metaphor for sexuality, as Justine, a virgin when she arrives at university, branches out, drinking heavily and embracing promiscuity. Even Justine’s name evokes de Sade, as Mark Kermode pointed out. Eating disorders are more than alluded to—after all, this is a film about taboo eating. In one scene, Justine vomits up a hairball into the faculty toilets. When she comes out of the cubicle, another girl tells her “Use two fingers and it comes up more easily.” It’s darkly funny and very apt, and at no point is it gratuitous.
And Raw is funny, at moments, as well as many other things. Empire described it, only semi-tongue-in-cheek, as “a tender, subtle film about family”. It’s shot well, making use of a palette of drab grey buildings and seemingly permanent overcast skies against which the blood, when it comes, is all the more shockingly visceral. Extreme violence of the kind found in Tarantino’s films, say Kill Bill Vol. 1, is one thing. Anyone can see The Bride fight the Crazy 88s and accept that it’s total fantasy. Watching a teenage girl bite the lip off a boy she’s kissing at a party is an entirely different kettle of fish. The gory moments of Raw make you clench every muscle in your body—but in a good way. Just don’t expect to be able to stomach pepperoni for months.