'Raw': the perks of being a cannibal
In 1791, the controversial author Marquis de Sade would present to the world the story of Justine, a virtuous young woman whose desire to lead a morally correct life is demolished over and over again by every person who crosses her path and commits acts of violence against her in every possible way. In 2016, French director Julia Ducournau presents us with a new Justine; one that wouldn't be that different from the original. Raw (2016) tells the story of a young veterinary student who, like the rest of her family, has practiced veganism all her life. After an hazing ritual in which she is forced to eat a rabbit liver, our protagonist begins to develop an increasingly strong and difficult to ignore appetite for meat. Not animal but human.
Premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, Ducournau's debut feature shocked audiences with powerful and disturbing visual imagery in which violence against the human body prevails. One that will definitely make you look the other way more than once. However, one of Raw's greatest achievements lies in its way of approaching gore, which is used not as a mere shock resource -which happens in most cases resulting in shallow exploitation films- but as a visual tool to translate into the external realm the internal conflicts that our protagonist goes through. Thus, Ducournau presents a variant of body horror with a marked psychological tone. One that allows her to reconcile two genres that would otherwise be situated in absolute extremes: horror -in its most grotesque variation- and coming-of-age.
Essentially, Raw is a coming-of-age tale in which the central subject matter is the moral development of Justine, who echoes her predecessor and becomes a spectator of her own virtue's decline. Because in a first viewing, the film seems to be a sole story of cannibalism, but a closer look at it allows the viewer to understand that, through this theme, Ducournau establishes a parallel between the sexual awakening of a woman and the origin of an inexplicable appetite for human flesh. It is not random that, in addition to her veganism, the other central aspect to Justine's character is her being a virgin. But in going through a defining stage of her life, she sees both of these principles questioned, and this is ultimately what brings her down on a journey of constant struggle against her own desires. In this regard, her relationship with her older sister, probably the main one throughout the entire film, plays a particularly relevant role. Unlike Justine, Alexia is shown as a liberated woman. One who has taken on her fleshly desires -in every possible way-. Frankly, Ducournau needed onyl to call her Juliette to make the reference to Sade even more obvious. But she doesn't, and she is aware of it. Raw is built upon symbolisms that are implied but never explicit, in such a way that it is the viewer's task to complete the interpretation from his own viewpoint.
The film maintains an aura of deep tension, which is amplified by both its soundtrack and a work in sound design that masterfully emphasizes every sensation in the body. Additionally, there is a claustrophobic aspect to it all; one that is largely produced by the scenarios, most of them being closed spaces imbued with a neon lighting. All these elements also contribute to a realistic depiction of anxiety that, when it reaches its climax, allows us to go through the physical pain of the body and actually see Justine's internal suffering. "I know that you will find a solution" is the line of dialogue that ends Raw. Without naming who says it so as not to make spoilers, this phrase closes the film in a tone that is both unexpected and hopeful. Almost like the final monologue in Lady Bird (Greta Gerwig, 2017), the letter signed by The Breakfast Club (John Hughes, 1985) or the simple “We are infinite” from The Perks of Being a Wallflower (Stephen Chbosky, 2012) , Raw intentionally makes us think that Justine will find a way to live with her cannibalism. But not just that. She will also find a new virtue in it, in her womanly body, and in her carnal nature.