A sleek coming-of-age horror with multidimensional story alongside arty camerawork wins at depicting the darker side of growing up – sophisticatedly shocking and pushing the audience’s boundaries.
Justine follows the footsteps of everyone in her family: her parents are vets, her sister went to study exactly the same subject. As a brilliant student, she gains an entry into the veterinary school – only to experience a tremendous shock of the beginning. At the induction, she’s thrown into hedonistic, merciless world that she’s never experienced before: parties run wild, alcohol flows like water, people do crazy things, sex is far from being a taboo subject. Her sister has also completely transformed and established herself as cool amongst the others, so she doesn’t let Justine be when the freshers are asked to eat raw meat as a part of the induction games. But that’s only the beginning of the story that uncovers the girl’s true nature.
Raw resounds everything that Nicolas Winding Refn showed us in The Neon Demon: there are strong coming-of-age themes, complete by the urge of finding yourself, and a transformation of a cool, quiet girl into a predator. In her first feature film, Julia Ducournau doesn’t hold herself back in the slightest: humiliation is as present as blood splattering at the characters throughout the film. However, her female perspective also helps to see the change with the fresh eyes: from the sibling rivalry that’s interlaced with a massive sense of caring for each other to the exploration of sexuality and desire, too.
Although most coming-of-age films flatten down the rush of hormones that teenagers experience, Raw exposes every darkest thing that the young are exposed to. It continuously tackles the peer pressure element and observes how teenagers are forced into doing things that have an impact on their mental and physical health. Humiliating videos circulating among the students are the new normal, and bullying is accepted without a word from the victim. There’s a quietly suggested theme of eating disorders, too, be it with Justine’s conversation with a doctor or a brief exchange in the toilets. The rivalry when it comes to academic results and the expectations put on the young regarding their abilities are also highlighted wonderfully: the family fame still hovers over the sisters. All of that also helps us to understand the main character’s insecurities and fears when she’s lost to instincts that she cannot understand.
Justine’s discovery of her released sexuality doesn’t merely stop at the “hormones” show-and-tell: it’s a deliciously served metaphor for consent, reversed from where it’d normally be. When at one party, Justine and a random guy get splashed with blue and yellow paint and thrown into the bathroom saying they’re “not allowed to come out until they’re green”, the girl keeps on being aggressive despite her partner asking her to stop. Similar picture echoes alongside the final revelation.
There’s a lot of power in acting that allows the showcase of all the nuances: Garance Marillie as Justine keeps her hand on the pulse as her character grows up in a matter of days. She’s subtle at showing the girl’s insecurities, moving when fighting the cannibalistic instincts, and downright crazy as a femme-fatale. Ella Rumpf as Alexia, the other sister, is the quintessence of the cool and sinister, with a healthy dose of alpha-woman.
With so many things that the film touches upon, the brutality that’s so prominent all the way through it works as a terrifying metaphor of the dark demons of young minds hiding underneath a perfectly acceptable surface. It ends up being tremendously shocking in a more stylish way than any blood-splattering slasher would be, and that’s because of carefully picked settings and top-notch framing. The camerawork makes the most out of the wicked aesthetic of the film: compositions from the labs or the outside shots are picturesque and scary, and force us to feel like good art should. The hazy shots of the student parties, changing angles, the camera following the subject in a documentary-like manner also contribute to the dark realism of the film.
A sterling story in Raw that reimagines coming-of-age films and puts them into a horror frame is shocking, but as it pays a lot of attention to its visual side, it’s also a sleek cinematic delight. Julia Ducournau’s debut is as moving as it is terrifying, and we’ll certainly be on the lookout for her future work.