As much as I adore films that deal with the tricky subject of “coming of age” and discovering true adulthood (all the delights and horrors of it), they usually deal with the concept of responsibility, most likely presented with the toolset of a comedy. Richard Linklater’s movies are a fine example of this. Now, Belgian-French movie Raw (Grave, 2016) takes a different approach.
Its protagonist is Justine, a lifelong vegetarian who starts her first semester at a veterinary school. Here she encounters bizarre initiation rituals involving blood and eating raw meat – at one point she’s forced to eat a rabbit’s kidney. In an exaggerated way it makes sense – these rituals are tied to the concept that a veterinarian should be able to deal with blood and internal organs without flinching, so there you have a first test (a first taste) of what’s to come. Justine’s older sister is already attending to this school, but instead of helping her get out of that situation, she encourages Justine to comply.
From here, the movie starts focusing on Justine’s odd and pathological craving of raw meat, going as far as becoming a cannibal. This is, however, not a traditional slasher or monster movie, and this process is presented in a very realistic (or rather, naturalistic) way. There is a very simple but effective symbolic meaning in all this: in parallel, she discovers her sexuality, and the craving of meat is tied not to gluttony in this case, but lust. On this note, the movie commits to the theme of losing innocence while generally avoiding becoming a horror film.
Because of this, the most bizarre aspect of the movie is how it presents the gory bits, almost as if they’re part of the natural order of the world. And in a way, they are – adulthood is all about facing the tragedies of the world, including our own mortality, the vulnerability of our bodies, our place in the food chain, essentially. It’s about learning to be cruel before falling to prey. Sexuality sometimes works that way. Discovering sexuality is almost like discovering an inner monster, a Jungian shadow, so to speak, and this theme is strongly presented throughout the film. One of the most staggering and crucial scene is where Justine stands before a mirror, listening to a very suggestive song, almost taunting herself into becoming a sexual being, shattering all illusion of innocence.
Scenes where she bites, are gruesome, but almost always sexually arousing. This is a really uncomfortable trait of the film, especially considering that at this point actress Garance Marillier is only eighteen or less (depending on when production began). She genuinely looks and acts innocent in the first minutes, and because of this, her transformation is very unsettling, and I’d wager it will make any male viewer instantly insecure about themselves, if not utterly terrified of sex.
But even aside of the sexuality aspect, you have a very believeable case of an addiction and in part something that should be acknowledged as a dark side of Justine’s self, something that she can’t really control but ultimately, something that she can confront. Aside from the fact that it’s cannibalism that requires harming other people, and despite its presented as something extreme, it bears resemblance to everybody’s struggle of coming to terms with themselves. Seeing the process unfold itself is thoroughly fascinating.
Writer-director Julia Ducournau created something special here. Even with the horrific framing, it’s probably one of the most honest stories about growing up I’ve ever seen. Not because we all crave something that’s forbidden, but because we all crave a place where we can both stand by our principles, act out our desires, live up to the expectations both of our parents and our peers. But the road towards that place is really confusing and terrifying, it’s a road where we might discover our true selves, and that true self might turn out to be a monstrous being. This is growing up.
Raw illustrates this with blood and raw meat, but nonetheless, it illustrates the process in a truthful way.