The feverish French-language coming-of-age-horror-comedy Raw has many selves, not all of them exhibited at the same time. But the somewhat frequent and always volatile transformations of its core being are at worst spirited, and more often than not, they amount to a kind of thematic-jukebox. The film’s somewhat vague attitude to theme allows writer-director Julia Ducornau to (over?)populate a thread of a narrative – a young freshman named Justine (Garance Marillier) at a vet school – with tensions of various calibers that rhyme with the peculiarities and curiosities of adolescence without necessarily committing to one central argument. When Justine develops increasingly erratic behavior and eventually a taste for human flesh after a hazing ritual involving eating a rabbit kidney, Ducornau’s thematically-promiscuous film reacts the only way it knows how: deploying the nonliteral beauty of horror cinema. Rendering sympathetic abstractions of issues from institutional neglect to gender awareness, Ducornau metaphorically challenges easily normalized realities and then galvanizes them with the grossly peculiar, unknown curveball of horror cinema.
Ducournau plays up both the high-class and low-brow implications of her narrative, positing not a binary opposition but a comfortable commiseration between them. The metaphor at the heart of it is almost begging to be overbaked: young, cloistered girl gets to college and finds herself immersed in a world of almost unyielding, norm-questioning, destructive portent that can be diagnosed as drug-abuse, sexual desire, or what-have-you. It would be easy to misdiagnose this as schlock. Except that Raw is schlock and wears its ineradicable crassness like a badge of honor, treating carnal viciousness not as something to shun or cower from but as tools to enlist in order to broach socially-encrypted issues about adolescent alienation.
As a director, Ducournau visualizes the effects of Justine’s disease – as well as the wider social syndrome of institutional disinterest in Justine’s suffering – with the manifold strength of icy stylistic impartiality. As a writer, she cuts through the lurid frenzy with a calculated emptiness where characters, especially Justine’s sister, hardly seem attuned to Justine or her mental whereabouts in the world. In both instances, Ducournau does not let us off the hook by clarifying the relationship between the school and Justine’s diseases. She never guarantees that the apparently-famous vet school either does or does not know what Justine is going through. Things remain threateningly ambiguous until the end, and the resultant air is an almost trancelike vibe where characters seem to be stifled and strangled by diffused social energies – or lethargies – as they traipse through scene after scene as if totally unable to marshal any resistance to the suffocating culture around them.
Even Justine herself – a wrinkle in the school’s culture early on, so concerned and flustered in the opening moments – soon smooths into the school, as though disinclined to worry about or act on her anxieties. This slantwise tone – both garish and chilly, murderously perturbed and nonchalant – creates a contrapuntal mood of fierce ambivalence. Justine, perhaps as with any teenager, seems locked in an unshakable liminal state. Ultimately, Raw’s centralizing fear, as with so many frightening films, is not the visible horror of flesh-eating but the silently, implacably flesh-crawling terror of anonymity and eventual sublimation to the status quo, the fear of policing the self to fit in not necessarily out of conscious desire but out of unthinking boredom.
Certainly, the film bites off more than it can chew (excuse the pun, which I didn’t even internalize until I wrote it down), especially with how the metaphor’s undisclosed antecedent allows Ducournau to throw in as many possible alternates as she can muster, up and to and of course including that the cannibalism really is just cannibalism, a corporeal rather than psychological disease. But what keeps it from being a formless creature, a whirlwind of inexact themes and ill-defined, indeterminate character motivations, is the peerless performance of Marillier as a befuddled adolescent schlepping around with little to no clue about the seemingly-unstated culture of this school which she is expected to simply acquiesce to. Well, Marillier’s performance, and the peerless filmmaking itself, which frequently veers from collapsed social ennui to grotesque terror to a truly dour fish-out-of-water comedy enrobed in a mist of poetic impenetrability.
It’s great stuff, and the minor ailments that beleaguer the film are also only equivocal rather than necessary failures. To wit, the instability of the thematic allegory – just how specific is the symbol of cannibalism, is it for drinking, sex, or a more general social disturbance? – also feels like the film embodying Justine’s own adolescent rootlessness. The film itself embodies the jittery dysfunction of a teenager trying on different vibes and alternate needs on a scene-to-scene basic, as though trying to wrangle its voice into something singular and pointed rather than confused or developmentally arrested. The confusion about the film’s metaphor, though, is part of the uniqueness, affording a sensibility of personal disturbance, the milieu of a film wracked with indecision about what it can say and not completely sure about how to say it. Incomplete? Maybe, but what a way for a writer-director to debut.