Review: Raw (2016)

I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that Raw is this year’s The VVitch or It Follows – that tentpole horror film that gets a big Spring release here in the UK. It seems to be a nascent tradition, and it’ll be interesting to see whether a contender for next year’s equivalent emerges from the upcoming festival season, or if the past two or three years have just been an accidental distribution model. Having played pretty much all the major genre fests – under tight security, no less – and gaining significant traction with stories of fainting and puking at screenings, it’s fair to say that Raw finally arrives with a fair bit of baggage.

I think it’s a shame that the main selling point seems to be that the film is barf-bag worthy, because if that’s what people expect then they’re quite likely going to be disappointed. There’s no denying that film has impressive gore and some fairly nauseating body horror moments, but it’s quite a bit more on top of that. Tonally it’s a bit like the love child of Trouble Every Day and Ginger Snaps, but that being said, it stands very well on its own two feet as an assured and riveting debut, while never shying away from its generic influences.

The film depicts the unravelling of one Justine (Garance Marillier), a young student sent off to vet school to follow in the footsteps of mum and dad. Her sister Alexia (Ella Rumpf) is already there, and helps guide her sister through the brutal hazing rituals of the first week of term. One of those rituals is consuming raw meat, which proves a struggle for strict vegetarian Justine. But, eat it she does, and it doesn’t take long for Justine to feel the after-effects. As her behaviour becomes increasingly bizarre, she locks horns with her sister and finds herself to be just about the wildest thing about vet school.

The school setting of the film provides a Suspiria-esque sense of isolation, and it doesn’t take long for it to seem less like a real institute of education and more of a conveniently eerie backdrop. The school itself looks appropriately like something out of early Cronenberg, all grey cement and harsh lines, and the quite grotesque scenes of veterinary procedures provide quite a normal sense of unease in the film. Amongst all this, then, Justine’s descent into a bloody brutality is all the more pronounced – much more colourful, for a start, her increasingly wild behaviour is markedly more kinetic than her surroundings. Garance Marillier delivers a truly transformative performance as Justine, managing to elicit both sympathy and revulsion in what will hopefully be a career-making role. Providing something of a pole to Justine is older sister Alexia, well used to the ways of vet school and instrumental in guiding Justine through her new environment. Ella Rumpf makes for a wonderful counter-point, the seemingly wilder sister emerging as increasingly sensible.

Raw is a film that can be seen as having a lot to say about female adolescence and sexuality, as well as the dangers of peer-pressure and family expectation. It doesn’t necessarily say anything new – that growing up can be messy, painful and confusing – but its expression is vivid and, importantly, hugely entertaining. A more recent point of comparison for Raw might be Der Nachtmahr, another frenetic depiction of a teenage girl struggling to cope with her own life’s changes. In that film though, a monster is literalised outside of it lead character, while in Raw any monstrosity is very much manifested within – even if that results in Justine making plenty of mess around her. Unlike the characters in both Der Nachtmahr and Ginger Snaps, Justine’s monstrosity remains very human, and I think there’s something quite modern about that.

Perhaps my favourite thing about Raw is that it’s a very funny film, or at least I thought so – and I wonder whether that might catch some viewers off-guard. Some of the humour is clever, and some of it is gross, but all of it adds to a compelling depiction of teenage angst. It’s not something that’s seemingly emphasised in promoting the film, and I think that’s a shame, as I think the dark humour lacing the film is really quite vital to its overall success. It might be that Raw won’t live up to the detail of the hype that’s been created around it, particularly for horror fans who’ve seen similar stories before. Regardless of that, though, for me Raw is absolutely unmissable, and you’ll find me first in line for Julia Ducournau’s next one.

Raw is in limited UK cinemas now.