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If you’re even in the slightest bit familiar with Raw going into the film, it should come as no surprise that it’s generally not recommended to eat for a little while before or after. In this day and age, with gore-spattered horrors all over the multiplexes it can be exceptionally hard to produce a film that leaves the viewer staggering out of the cinema and into the bathrooms; that Raw does so whilst maintaining a comparatively low amount of actual blood is impressive. What’s also impressive is the film’s commitment to character, ensuring it leaves a good aftertaste well beyond its visceral queasiness.

Directed and written by Julia Ducournau, and set in Belgium, Raw tells the story of Justine (Garance Marillier), a first-year veterinary student and a lifelong vegetarian. On the first night at university, older students forcibly round up the entire freshman year and force them to party all night, following that up with a series of extreme initiation rituals. After being forced to eat raw rabbit liver, an urge awakens in Justine which sets in motion the chain of events that leads to her coming-of-age and her discovery of her own identity.

Whilst there are some pokey holes in Raw; marketed as a “contemporary arthouse” horror it can at times be guilty of that genre’s academic noodling, where familiar tropes and conventions are turned upside down to make a cultivated, chin-stroking point about a person’s coming-of-age whilst critics and the middle classes fall over themselves to praise it; something like Berberian Sound Studio is a good comparison, a finely-crafted film that won critical plaudits but which lacked any real soul, being all brain and no heart. There are elements of Raw which feel designed to play overly to such a crowd.

With that said, Ducournau’s film is superior in every way, precisely because it does have heart. This is only superficially a cannibalism film; truthfully it’s about Justine’s journey into becoming herself. And because of Marillier’s excellent, nuanced performance, which closely follows Justine’s journey from naïve, well-meaning teenager to complex, ugly, conflicted adulthood, Raw is gripping all the way through. With its exploration of burgeoning female sexuality amidst neon-lit concrete wastelands, Raw has more in common with Celine Sciamma’s feminine coming-of-age films, such as Water Lilies and especially Girlhood, than it does with Cannibal Holocaust or even arthouse peers like Peter Greenaway’s The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover.

Visually too, the film is striking. The visceral, stomach-churning scenes are played with just the right balance of bleak humour and shock, and deployed at key moments for maximum effect, whilst the widescreen ratio allows Ducournau to keep just enough distance from the characters to emphasise the alienating effects of the university lifestyle’s disorientating effect on a generation of young adults, whilst keeping the audience engaged with our protagonist. {Raw} is at times exactly that, a raw first film, but it’s also a rather excellent one. In the last year or so we’ve seen a spate of thrillers and horrors centring around female POVs, from The Witch to Elle to Under the Shadow, and Raw is a valuable addition to that cadre.


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