When Julia Ducournau’s debut feature, Raw, debuted at TIFF in September 2016, it caused a real stir — people supposedly fainted at one screening. Then again, it’s a horror movie at a prestigious film festival, so most of the showings were at midnight. Maybe a couple of viewers just passed out from exhaustion, or conked out following a $14 glass of sippy-cup wine. But that doesn’t matter. The myth around Raw, a body-horror coming-of-age story about a young veterinary student who realizes she’s a cannibal, was that it was so nightmarish, gory, and vulgar that it could actually make people faint.
This myth has persisted, even after Ducournau told Film School Rejects, “That’s not my movie,” and expanded on the sentiment in an interview with Jezebel: “It doesn’t do justice to my movie in the sense that some people are going to be scared to go see my movie when they have no reason to be scared… I didn’t try to make a scary movie at all. It’s not torture porn. There are three scenes in the movie that are hard to watch. Three scenes.”
Raw, which follows first-year veterinary student and teen prodigy Justine (Garance Marillier) as she discovers a lust for human flesh, is pretty gruesome. But no more so than Nicolas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon, another film about young women cannibals that came out in 2016 — billed as a must-watch art film, even though it was empty and pointless. Raw features a lot of blood, though no more than in any Quentin Tarantino film, and with some similar aesthetic aims. There’s — gasp! — consensual violent sex, which involves several long, excruciating seconds of watching the protagonist’s teeth sink into her own wrist. But that’s no more jarring than a sex scene in the pilot episode of Richard Price and Steven Zaillian’s The Night Of, which is considered a prestige noir, suitable for any adult eyeballs.
The difference is, Raw was made by a woman, and it’s about a young woman’s experience. The focus on its gore might not have malicious intent, but it’s a handy way of saying Ducournau has stepped outside the lines of good taste. And those lines, it seems, are movable depending on who you’re talking about. Nobody called Scorsese a blood-and-gore niche director after Robert DeNiro bit off part of Illeana Douglas’ face in Cape Fear. It’s not as if anyone points out the cannibalism in Silence of the Lambs as a play for shock value, or called the Academy Award-winning film unwatchable — despite the fact that it’s inarguably more challenging to stomach. No, these other horror movies are allowed to stand as psychological thrillers, or, like Jordan Peele’s appropriately lauded directorial debut Get Out (which also dabbles in body horror), as biting social critique.
This bizarre situation calls to mind the controversy around Annie Baker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play The Flick, which follows a trio of movie-theater employees, and is written to occur in real time. That means there are stretches, sometimes many minutes long, in which the only thing on stage is a man sweeping up popcorn kernels. The play varies in length depending on the director, but when it debuted Off-Broadway at Playwright Horizons in 2013, it was more than three hours long. About 10 percent of the audience walked out at intermission, and Playwright Horizons received enough angry complaints and threats of cancelled subscriptions that they ultimately issued a 900-word letter asking audiences to reconsider. Never mind that at least half a dozen of what are concerned the great works of American drama are essentially four-hour arguments about morphine addiction. That isn’t the point — behind those accusations, there was more than a whisper of “What did she need all that time for?”
What does Ducournau, or her young heroine, need all that blood for?
Ducournau doesn’t just have blood, she also has sweat, flaking skin, exposed bone, chewed hair, and a bikini wax gone horribly wrong. In effect, she has a woman’s body turned inside out. In an interview with GQ, Ducournau was asked what she thinks about the handful of other female filmmakers currently dabbling with cannibalism and vampirism — like Iranian director Ana Lily Amirpour (A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, The Bad Batch) or Polish director Agnieszka Smoczynska (The Lure). Ducournau said cryptically, “I think the fact that women want to tear up the skin is very interesting.”
Raw’s heroine isn’t the first to rip up bodies, or to fly in the face of audience’s expectations for girlish behavior, but she differs boldly from her predecessors in that her urge to do so has nothing to do with revenge, anger, or even self-defense. It’s just something she wants, and Raw is a movie about wanting. She’s not Jess Weixler in Teeth, or Kika Magalhães in The Eyes of My Mother, or Angela Bettis in May (though they’re both veterinarians). “Women punishing terrible men” stories can be fun and urgent, but this isn’t one of them. Neither is it really a monster movie.
It’s more straightforward than that — a shifting, formless story about being in the headspace of a precocious 16-year-old girl in her first year of college. She’s adapting to her new setting, and to her first year thinking about power, her first year thinking about sex, and uh, yeah, her first year craving raw flesh. The most interesting scenes in the movie aren’t when Justine is slurping up blood or knocking back raw chicken in the glow of her dorm-room mini-fridge. (Though that shot is great.) They’re the relatable responsee she has to this nightmare taking over her body.
The best scenes could be reactions to anything that happens to a girl at this rending edge — a middle-of-the-night sequence screaming into the sheets alone, a beautifully choreographed drunken waltz through a basement punk show, long minutes watching a boy play soccer, or swaying in front of the mirror, wearing a new dress. Justine’s public, physical fight with her older sister (Ella Rumpf) is one of the nastiest sequences in the whole movie, and it is terrifying, but the way the sisters fight is familiar. It’s the way you fight with someone whose body you know well, and whom you’re capable of both loving and despising. If Raw is tough on the stomach at all, it’s only because it does such an incredible job getting to the truth of what it’s like to be a woman at that age. It’s torture, frankly, which is probably why Justine actually takes more violence than she doles out.
Raw is a pulse-pounding horror movie, but it also feels like the truest thing I’ve ever seen about being a teenager.
In that GQ interview, Ducournau says the way the female body is usually shown in film is “unrelatable” to her. “I can’t relate to the sexualization of the body and I can’t relate to the glamorization of the female body,” she says. This has been true for me too. Even in movies that aren’t openly exploitative, women in most films are emphatically beautiful or unbeautiful, and whichever one they’re established as is key to the way the world of the film spins around them. It’s distracting to have to constantly consider this, and it limits who can see themselves in a character’s interiority. In Raw, Justine’s thoughts and feelings are externalized to such an extreme degree that whether she’s attractive is way beside the point, and the camera really only focuses in on her body with a scientific and not prurient interest, when it’s in distress. If people are wondering, “Why does she need all that blood?” maybe this is a partial answer: the gore gives Justine the space to be terrifying and complicated, rather than a pretty freshman weirdo just trying to find her groove.
Raw is Ducournau’s debut, so it’s important that the film gets attention for what it is — a genuinely scary movie that’s also a one-of-a-kind portrayal of a girl’s first year at a competitive college. If it’s pigeonholed as a niche exploitation-horror film, a grueling experience only meant for the truly undaunted, that’s unlikely to line Ducournau up for a shot at critical acclaim, or bigger opportunities down the line. And in the first place, stories about a young woman’s coming-of-age experience are often considered genre by that measure alone, where stories about a young boy’s can be called existential, human, and expansive.
It’s rare to see a truly engrossing horror movie where the twists aren’t visible a mile away. It’s nearly unique to see a film of any genre that can chart the darker parts of a brilliant young woman’s mind without turning her into an out-and-out monster, destroying her, or converting her. If anything, Ducournau should get way more credit for doing both.
Raw is now playing in limited release.