During a Q&A that followed a recent screening of Raw at New York’s Walter Reade Theater, a woman in the audience stood up and interrupted director Julia Ducournau as she was discussing the animalistic nature of her film.
“What is your movie about?” the woman yelled, visibly distraught by what she had just seen. “You keep going on and on and on!”
The audience grumbled as they turned their attention from the woman back to Ducournau. “I feel that you maybe have a very strong reaction to the movie, which is good,” the French director responded coolly. “It’s better than nothing.”
Applause broke out as the woman was escorted into the lobby. “I’ve gotten used to this throughout the year,” added Ducournau before continuing to ruminate about the question of human nature in her stunning debut feature, which opens in theaters Friday.
Since it premiered last year at Cannes, where it won the International Federation of Film Critics’ Prize, and its North American premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, during which multiple audience members fainted, Raw has elicited a wide range of reactions from those who have seen it. Audience members in the Walter Reade Theater responded to some of the film’s most wrenching moments by burying their heads in their arms, contorting their faces, laughing, staring at the screen with their mouths agape and bouncing their knees in a furious attempt to expel some of the perverse energy the film had unlocked inside of them.
Even before the film’s title flashes in red block letters across the screen, Ducournau shoves a knife into the audience’s gut and does not stop twisting it until the closing credits roll, after which she leaves it there, dripping in blood, for your continued consideration. Visceral is a word that will be used repeatedly in reviews of Raw, and rightfully so. It is uncomfortable and unsettling in an all-consuming, corporeal sense. Cannibalism can have that effect.
“My goal is to address the bodies of my audience before I address their minds,” Ducournau tells Newsweek. “This makes it a physical experience. I do believe that physicality, when you watch movies, is very important, because it makes you active. It makes you completely in the story, and at the same time, you can question why you are feeling those things. You feel and then you think.”
Raw tells the story of a French teenager named Justine who is beginning her first year of veterinary school, where her older sister, Alexa, is already a student. Justine is a gifted student, a Harry Potter type entering a bizarro Hogwarts where students learn to shove their arms up cow anuses rather than cast spells. She is also a vegetarian with a noble view of her future patients. In one scene, she explains to confused students why raping an animal is morally tantamount to raping a woman. She is a timid, idealistic virgin who has yet to experience anything resembling the real world, or her real self.
After moving into her dorm, Justine is quickly exposed to the school’s rampant party culture, which features late-night raves and an intense hazing ritual for new students. “Rookies” are drenched in blood by upperclassmen and, one by one, are forced to eat a piece of rabbit kidney. She initially objects but feels the pressure to fit in and takes a bite. She slowly acclimates to the school’s rabid social scene, developing an insatiable taste for meat in the process. Her desires intensify, and she becomes animalistic in her need to consume, both sexually and by devouring whatever flesh is within chomping distance.
Raw is not a horror film. Although there’s gore, and the delicate relationship between life and death is laid bare throughout, it is not frightening in any immediate sense. “I want my movie to haunt people but not because it’s scary,” says Ducournau. “I want it to make people question themselves. These are questions we should ask ourselves every day. What does it mean to be human? Where is my humanity? How do I know whether it resides in my body, or my soul, or in my actions, or in my relationships with others? What is humanity?
“It is something that is scary but in a very intellectual way,” she continues. “It’s not like you’re going to jump out of your seat every two seconds.”
Ducournau approaches every aspect of her film with a similar philosophical depth. When discussing how she fleshed out the relationship between Justine and Alexa, she references the gory sibling stories of the Bible and Greek mythology. To describe their oddly symbiotic journey together through the course of the film, she relates in detail the process of cellular mitosis and how this biological phenomenon informed the on-screen relationship of the film’s two principal characters.
With Raw, Ducournau didn’t just want to make a cliché cannibal horror film. She wanted to make a film that forces the audience to confront some of the more deep-seated aspects of their humanity, and she decided cannibalism would be the best way to achieve this. “My aim was certainly not to be shocking,” she said at the Walter Reade Theater. “I think that provocation is a bit shallow.”
Though Ducournau says she isn’t comfortable with labeling films, if one was forced to assign a genre to Raw, it would be a coming-of-age film. This is true both for Justine and, in a way, for the audience. While at veterinary school, Justine for the first time transcends her parents’ desires as she confronts her animalistic nature and, ultimately, learns to reckon with it. She discovers that she has agency. As we witness Justine’s awakening, we simultaneously are forced to consider the mind’s relationship to the body, and the body’s relationship to humanity, which Ducournau relishes exploring in all its horrific beauty.
“Bodies are incredibly endearing in their monstrosity, and in their quirks,” she says. “They are a very good medium for all of us to relate together. I really do believe that. There is a truth and an equality in the grotesque aspects of the body and the scary aspect as well. We’re all going to die of something, and it’s not going to be pretty.”
Raw is an artful, high-minded film, but it is indeed very gory, and those with a particularly weak stomach may find it hard to digest. There is blood, there is piss, there is shit, there is ripped-open flesh. It’s not pretty, but it’s all very much part of life, which is Ducournau’s point.
“I do think that no one, humans or societies, grows up by repressing stuff, even the darkest stuff,” she says. “I think we’re built to be in full possession of information in order to grow up and to be able to make moral choices. It’s only by experiencing her own monstrosity or animality that she can be confronted for the first time in her life with this choice: I can kill, but will I?”
This idea—that we must expose ourselves to the more objectionable aspects of life in order to grow—is one way to look at it. Another is that ignorance is bliss. If you subscribe to the former, you will not see a more uniquely thought-provoking film this year than Raw. If you subscribe to the latter, you might just want to order your next steak rare and call it an experience.
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