“Then we had our first kiss. And I understood…”
Pleasures of the flesh take on parallel meanings in Julia Ducournau’s Raw. Collegiate sexual awakenings are nothing new for indie cinema, but Ducournau translates this misguided time into a horror masterpiece that champions the re-imagining of a genre in desperate need of re-imagining. With a triumphant cast and a visceral visual flair, this could well be the most horrifying movie you see this October, but for freshly frightening reasons.
Raw follows lifelong vegetarian Justine (Garance Marillier) as she enters a prestigious veterinary school. In a clever early scene, we see the staunchly conservative, almost religious avoidance of meat on which Justine has been raised. This is embodied most passionately in her mother who seems horrified at the very notion of consuming a living creature, although more subtly in her father, who seems wisely conflicted on the subject. The rest of the film follows Justine’s rebellion against her upbringing: both sexually and carnivorously as she is hazed and humiliated by the upperclassmen at her veterinary school, most notably her older sister Alex (Ella Rumpf) who is also living out her juicy rebellion in its most extreme forms.
Sex and food are the driving forces behind Raw, and you find one theme at the center of both: meat. What is sex, the film would seem so suggest, but sacks of meat on sacks of meat. Justine poses a pivotal question throughout the movie: what makes us different than the animals we split apart and consume? Even genetically, one side character observes, pigs aren’t far off from humans. Just as a set of teeth grinds through meat until it hits bone, so this movie grinds into these questions both poignantly and horrifically.
If my friends on Twitter are any judge of what makes a great horror movie, they’ll throw out the biggest cliché in terms of criteria: jump scares. How many are there? Does the movie rely on them? Do they enhance the story? I wonder how many of them would correctly identify Raw as a horror movie, because there’s not one jump scare (in the traditional sense of the term) in the entire film. I had a stronger reaction to Raw than I’ve had to any horror movie of recent years, and that’s not just because it’s disgusting, (and man, it is disgusting), but because it offers you a different type of fear: something deep-rooted where the only thing going bump in the night is your own body. It’s a new spin on Cronenberg’s “body horror” that digs even further into us, capturing Cronenberg’s inner-to-outer style with a powerful sense of realism that I’ve never seen in a movie before.
There are movies that exist as a challenge. Pink Flamingos comes to mind, and eventually Salo when I get the nerve to watch it. It’s like those disgusting Internet videos you passed around in middle school. Have you seen ____ yet? the children would ask with laughter, looking over their shoulders to make sure no teachers were around. It will make you throw up. I’d be curious how many people have thrown up seeing Raw, but despite its shock factor, Raw is a masterfully executed work of fine cinema that deconstructs these lesser movies, asking us why we find X and Y to be so disgusting? What can these impulses tell us about ourselves, and what are the consequences if we decide to reject these norms?
I regret not seeing Raw in a movie theater, though I hope to catch a screening someday. When you see It or Annabelle: Creation in a crowded movie theatre (as I did last month), you hear the reactions of its victims. These movies attack you, using suspense and surprise to elicit fear as classical horror movies have always done. It’s a math problem, one where we’ve got the formulas sheet memorized. Don’t get me wrong; I love some of those movies (not Annabelle particularly, though there are many others). But Raw isn’t interested in attacking you. It wants to invade you. It never pulls the camera away or lets your mind do the work (a mind where you’re in control.) Raw knows what you’re afraid of. It knows what disgusts you. It knows what you shut out of your mind when you find a hair in your soup or read a news headline about a killer cannibal. And then it delivers. That’s what horror should do. It’s not horror for everyone, but it’s horror about everyone, and Ducournau did it perfectly.
Raw is one of my favorite movies of the year and one of the finest horror films I’ve ever seen. If you watch it and don’t want to finish or don’t want to watch it again, that’s fair. But do yourself a service: carve out 90 minutes, start up Netflix, and try to stomach Raw. Then we can go out for a steak dinner and talk about what really scares us.