With the monotonous repetition of lackluster psychological, slasher and zombie horror films that have been forced upon audiences over the past few years, consumers of the horror genre have become practically immune to the typical cannibal character. While settings, lore and love interests may change, the internally tortured, highly intelligent and Hannibal Lecter-esque male cannibal character remains a staple of the modern horror film.
Yet, Justine, the young, female cannibal protagonist of French director Julia Ducournau’s psychological horror film and feature debut, “Raw” transcends every preconception about horror and its beloved characters. Ducournau uses the awkward and relentlessly relatable Justine as a starting point in her successful attempt to completely redefine the genre of horror at its very core. In the process, the director constructs a funny but gut-wrenching coming-of-age story rooted in horror elements that is every bit deserving of its FIPRESCI Prize win at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival.
The film opens to a quiet, nightmarish backdrop of an endless country road under a grey sky, accentuated by an incredibly versatile score. In this eerily peaceful setting, the audience feels the anticipation within Justine, played by up-and-coming French actress Garance Marillier, as she hunts her prey, running into the road and forcing the death of an innocent man who swerves to avoid hitting her.
Yet, what follows is not the expected gore of Justine gruesomely tearing apart the organs of her catch and devouring her latest meal. Instead, Ducournau expertly plays with the audience’s expectations by juxtaposing Justine’s vivid hunt for human flesh with a sudden swap to her comical backstory as a gawky young adult and devoted vegetarian beginning her first year as a veterinary student.
Watching the deafening, smoke filled rooms of college house parties, the audience experiences Justine’s growth as a young woman exploring the enticing worlds of alcohol, sex and her own university’s ritualistic hazing methods. But her path to self-discovery as she navigates the cult-like community of her student body results in one damning conclusion: she suddenly has a feverish craving for the taste of human meat and fresh blood on her tongue.
Ducournau builds the horror elements of “Raw” in the undertones of the film, using the venues of sex, hazing and peer pressure to explore the normalization of violence that precedes Justine’s hungering for her companions’ flesh. Frame by frame, the film uses the motifs of chaos and commotion to build the contrast of the sexiness and the brutality of violence toward other humans.
In one instance, Ducournau seamlessly swaps the image of a naked and sweat-tinted Justine passionately kissing a partner with the haunting image of Justine drawing blood as she bites down on the flesh of the same man, blurring the fine line between sexual pleasure and animalistic violence. In this way, “Raw” punctuates long scenes depicting Justine’s transformation from an innocent-eyed student to a troubled, flesh-craving cannibal with instances of intensely realistic gore. The film challenges the audience to question the taboo nature of cannibalism as compared to animal meat consumption.
Overall, however, “Raw” falls short of its promised carnage factor. Several scenes featuring Justine’s ravenous feasting on human meat are mere extensions of previews of the film, leaving audiences hungering for a more extensive foray into the world of college cannibalism.
But “Raw” manages to win audiences over through the depth of its more intimate scenes, wherein Justine attempts to find friendship and suffers from humiliation at the hands of her peers. Marillier’s command of Justine’s internal conflict throughout the character’s transformation and Ducournau’s ability to consistently weave the striking contrast of colors, light and chaos in each frame into a coherent piece allow the film to transcend severely overworked horror tropes.
“Raw” is much more than a horror film: the movie is a beautiful amalgamation of a psychological thriller, a coming-of-age comedy and a splatter horror flick that seamlessly crosses the boundaries of genre to achieve greatness. In a visually stunning manner, “Raw” delivers an unforgettable foray into the age-old horror of cannibalism from a new perspective, leading audiences to crave its blood and gore from start to finish.