Eating people: serious horror

Katerina Sakkas: Julia Ducournau’s Raw



A brutally perceptive portrait of adolescent transformation, Julia Ducournau’s Raw is a symbolically rich experience, replete with multiple cultural references. Following the unworldly Justine (Garance Marillier), cossetted daughter of a family of vegetarians, as she embarks on her studies at a prestigious veterinary college, the film recalls a range of bloody coming of age tales in which a young woman’s innocence is lost during the emergence of a true, monstrous self.

There’s Carrie (1976), of course—a scene in Raw where all the first year rookies are ritually drenched in pig’s blood echoing its heroine’s infamous humiliation—as well as the Soska sisters’ American Mary (2012), whose protagonist, a talented medical student, turns down a much darker surgical path after her studies are derailed in a grave betrayal of trust.

Also pertinent is American Mary’s spiritual antecedent, the 2000 cult black comedy Ginger Snaps (a film of personal significance to the Soskas as well as Katharine Isabelle, star of both films), about sisters grappling with the combined hassle of puberty and lycanthropy. Then there are the subversive heroines of Angela Carter’s 1979 short story collection The Bloody Chamber, who shed their skins to become killers and wild animals. The list could go on.

In Raw’s production notes, Durcournau names the Marquis de Sade’s Justine, her character’s namesake, as a key influence. A lamb to the slaughter, de Sade’s orphaned heroine must endure a host of sexual cruelties over 15 years, in the face of which she maintains her essential moral fortitude. Ducournau uses the theme of the corruption of innocence to create sympathy for her main character, to magnify her degradation and—in divergence from de Sade—to act as a foil for the obscenity of her emergent true self. “Juju” is the baby of the family, the brainiac, far more naïve than her louche older sister, Alexia (Ella Rumpf), a senior at the same vet school.

The film plays up Marillier’s childlike appearance and mannerisms: her eyes like saucers and a brow that furrows in hurt surprise when confronted with the callousness of college hazing. Our own innocent assumption, and Justine’s, that an institution such as a veterinary college will be caring, is undermined by the reality of the bastardising culture within—a culture ultimately surpassed by Justine’s individual transgression.



Raw’s abundant body horror is graphically connected to ingestion, as Justine’s body violently rebels against certain substances while compulsively craving others. It’s the horror of eating disorders (after vomiting up quantities of her own hair, Justine is given friendly advice in the toilets by a bulimic classmate). It’s horror that alludes to the societal curtailment of women’s appetites, for food and otherwise; unsurprisingly, when Justine’s craving for meat reaches its cannibalistic zenith, it’s inextricably linked to her sexuality.

Raw’s French title is Grave, meaning serious, heavy—a weightiness emphasised by passages of Grand Guignol stylisation that accentuate the film’s symbolism. When Justine takes up residence in the vet school, she moves from sunny normality into a quasi-nocturnal world of dimly lit corridors and labs inhabited by trussed-up animals. Scenes of student hedonism, such as the improvised on-site nightclub where a toy lamb hangs by its neck, are saturated in lurid monochromatic light. Composer Jim Williams’ organ motif lends extra weight to key moments, as does the mellow Baroque lighting that transforms the more tender moments between Justine and Alexia and the disconcerting animal tableaux of Justine’s nightmares.

The gravity of Justine’s situation, of the struggle between human caring and her all-consuming cannibalistic urge, is never downplayed nor simplified. This is serious horror indeed: multilayered, rich and strange.

Raw, writer, director Julia Ducournau, cinematographer Ruben Impens, editor Jean-Christophe Bouzy, music Jim Williams, art director Laurie Colson, distributor Monster Pictures, 2016

RealTime issue #138 April-May 2017

© Katerina Sakkas; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

26 April 2017