Raw (2016), Julia Ducournau's directorial debut, is a coming of age film of two disparate sensibilities. The first, and most readily apparent, being a desire to shock or offend (which is only natural, as the film is about a desire for flesh), but that's where a push/pull relationship is formed within Raw. Clashing with its desire to be a subversive experience is the film's disappointing digestibility. For every step away from an audience's comfort zone that Raw traverses, a touch of comedy or even a palpable penchant for "cuteness" besmirches the film's potential on a visceral level. Making itself an unavoidable presence, the cute-factor of Raw is one of its many textures that coalesce to form a film that is almost voiceless... in some ways, it even reflects the nature of the film's protagonist, but it's likely unintentional.
There's an inevitability to the events of the film that are established from the first scene following the prologue, as Justine (Garance Marillier) is introduced in a cafeteria. "No protein?" inquires the cafeteria worker as she observes Justine avoiding the predominantly meat-oriented selection. Justine, like her parents, is a vegetarian, and her reaction of spitting out her mashed potatoes when she finds a piece of stray meat mixed within it is telling of how her lack of an appetite for meat will soon be challenged.
Upon being dropped off by her parents at the elite veterinarian academy that her whole family has attended, she is quickly introduced to an environment of extreme hazing. Upperclassmen wear ski masks as they round up all the freshmen after tossing all of their possessions out of their dormitory windows, and an attempt by writer/director Ducournau to throw believability out the window is made as well. The attempt to introduce this milieu as a punk sanctuary proves futile, as this initial scene of hazing and many of the scenes that follow will push an audience away from accepting this world which will prevent the more shocking moments in Raw from feeling unexpected. If the whole world of a film is crazy, then a girl who gradually discovers she has a thing for human flesh isn't that outlandish.
The tackiness of the student body at this academy is an issue that is never addressed, as students roam about with stained lab coats for the duration of the film – or even worse, lab coats that are stained and have drawings and patches on them. It's an aesthetic best suited to adorn a poster for a talentless band in a middle school student's locker. However, the fashion choices of these students – especially while in the presence of their professors – are never addressed because Raw is basically set apart from the real world (it must be). Naturally, this notion can eventually be accepted as the school's history and reputation in the more "normal" surrounding community are revealed. In some ways, the school must be a place of its own for Justine to have this primal awakening.
Straddling reality and a land of fiction, the issues that arise in the divide between the film's desire to be provocative while being easy to take can all be attributed to an almost voiceless film. When Raw does have a voice, it's not in good taste, or it's telling of the film's need to be liked by viewers. A gentle acoustic guitar soundtrack might be the most significant detractor from this film's potential to shock or disturb, especially when considering the electronic score that appears whenever scenes are frightening. Sure, the soundtrack could be seen as an extension of Justine's transition from vegetarian to an enthusiastic consumer of human flesh, but it's too obvious. There's no room for the audience to decide how they feel without being guided by the non-diegetic music to feel one way or another.
In spite of the film lacking a distinct tone, Garance Marillier's performance as Justine is excellent, and the physical daring of many of her scenes allows for Raw to hit its mark as a result of her commitment to Justine's newly discovered obsession. She scratches, bites, sucks, and gnaws her way through this film that makes the human appetite for the body (sexually and gustatory) believable because she is. As a protagonist, she's quite strong, and she's thankfully not as poorly dressed as her peers. It's frustrating though that this character is not supported by a film that allows for Marillier's performance to mean anything without it being announced or explained through this film's visual and aural language.
James Quandt coined the phrase "New French Extremity" to describe the spate of films coming out of France in the late 1990s and early 2000s that had a tendency to portray sex and violence with intense realism (often in a very confrontational way with the audience). Many films over the past decade or so have taken elements of that "movement" or perpetuated the affect of that kind of cinema, but Raw popularizes it. This is a teen movie, plain and simple, and it might even work with an audience that has avoided or never seen films by Gaspar Noé, Bruno Dumont, or Catherine Breillat. Claire Denis' Trouble Every Day (2001) might be the film closest to Raw, but Raw is much easier to watch in comparison to Denis' film, which has a consistent tone and style. That an audience or a key demographic can be perceived as targeted while watching Raw is part of the film's problem. This film, frankly, doesn't go far enough with its violence. It's too accessible, and that shouldn't be the case with a film about a girl's cannibalistic desires coming out into the open.
My rating: 2.5/5