Julia Ducournau’s Raw is set in a curiously brutal school for veterinarians. After all, veterinarians medically treat animals, and one might presume that people drawn to the profession are empathetic, respectful, and protective of their prospective patients. But the opening passages of the film quickly dash such optimism, showing hazing rituals in which freshman are callously doused by older students in animal blood and forced to eat rabbit kidneys chased with liquor, while weathering more conventionally invasive torments such as property damage and sexual harassment. The arbitrary repulsiveness of these practices, and the institution’s familiarly apathetic attitude toward them, serve a rich figurative purpose in the film, breaking through the audience’s cultural de-sensitivities to render hazing properly alien, informing widely reported real-life traditions with lurid horror-movie symbolism.
The narrative pivots on the protagonist’s escalating reactions to these barbarities. Justine (Garance Marillier) is a prototypical odd duck, a gifted student and late bloomer who’s endearingly resistant to the groupthink that’s imposed on her by older classmates, including her sister, Alexia (Ella Rumpf), who resents Justine’s intelligence and idiosyncrasy. (And it’s a resentment that’s shockingly revealed to be shared by one of Justine’s professors, who tells her that he’s rooting for her failure.) Justine has also been raised as a vegetarian, which further alienates her from her peers and causes problems when she’s forced to eat the aforementioned rabbit kidney. Justine acquiesces to peer pressure though, and the exposure to meat turns her into a rabid carnivore who progresses from eating raw chicken to fiending human flesh.
Raw is driven by an unnerving sense of vagueness then, as we’re primed to expect an explanation for Justine’s cannibalism and the even creepier matter-of-factness that her violence triggers from bystanders. Justine eats Alexia’s severed finger in the film’s most disturbing scene, nibbling the meat vigorously off the bone, which the latter seems to regard as little more than a slight. (Alexia is more irritated when Justine fails to show adequate interest in her wardrobe.) A logical assumption, given Alexia’s apparent knowledge of Justine’s condition, is that the institution is purposefully turning its students into cannibals, but Justine initially appears to be the only person affected. And why would a school for veterinarians want their students to eat each other? A justification for such a motivation is difficult to imagine even by the standards of a purposefully irrational horror film.
As in Ginger Snaps, which Raw thematically recalls, the protagonist’s supernatural awakening is linked predominantly to sex. At the start of the film, Justine is a virgin who’s poked and prodded relentlessly by her classmates until she evolves only to be rebuffed for being too interested in sex—a no-win hypocrisy faced by many women. High-pressure taunts casually and constantly hang in the air, such as Alexia’s insistence that “beauty is pain” and a song that urges a woman to be “a whore with decorum.” In this film, a bikini wax can almost get one killed, and a drunken quest to get laid can, for a female, lead to all-too-typical humiliation and ostracizing.
Throughout Raw, Ducournau exhibits a clinical pitilessness that’s reminiscent of the body-horror films of David Cronenberg, often framing scenes in symmetrical tableaus that inform the various cruelties and couplings with an impersonality that’s ironically relieved by the grotesque intimacy of the violence. We’re witnessing conditioning at work, in which Justine is inoculated into conventional adulthood, learning the self-shame that comes with it as a matter of insidiously self-censorious control. By the film’s end, Ducournau has hauntingly outlined only a few possibilities for Justine: that she’ll get with the program and regulate her hunger properly, or be killed or institutionalized.