Written and directed by: Julie Decournau
When I watch movies with a critical mind I regularly find myself thinking something along the lines of “the movie shied away from” or “ignored” its message.” It’s a frame of thinking I’ve developed through writing a series of articles on Marvel movies. In the case of those movies, it’s an appropriate framework. Its quite possible that when producing a major commercial project, writers’ rooms propose mixing and matching storytelling approaches aimed at one part of their demographic, with those aimed at another. This approach to critiquing film, however, has followed me beyond my recent Marvel phase into indie theatre showings of Under the Silver Lake and Her Smell. The problem with applying this kind of thought to auteur’s projects (as opposed to blockbusters) is that there’s a very good chance some sort of consistent philosophy does underline these films. Therefore, when I accuse them of losing sight of their message, all I’m really saying is that they’ve abandoned what I thought their message should have been.
So I’m sure it will not surprise you to learn that when watching Raw, at several points I found myself saying “I think the movie lost sight of its message.” There are lots of ways to describe Raw. Despite overall enjoying the film, “unwatchable” is one adjective I found myself thinking several times: especially in an early moment when students are depicted slowly abusing a horse as part of a frosh week activity. The film’s graphic shock is more than matched however, by its equally vivid (and fully coherent) narrative structure.
Raw is the story of Justine (Garance Marillier) a vegetarian from a vegetarian family, and an academic standout. The film begins as she starts her time at veterinary school, though North American audiences should know, in Belgium, where the film, is set this appears to be the equivalent of an undergraduate degree. As such, Justine’s is a coming of age story, a genre of film on which Raw shines what can be read as a critical light .
I recently wrote about how certain films can make substance-abuse look like an inevitable part of rock-and-roll culture, and my sense is that many films given the “coming of age” brand extend that sense of inevitability to general teenage culture. Take the example of Dazed and Confused, a film that portrays high school (and a 9th grader’s coming of age experience) as a time of drunken parties, hazing rituals and parental absenteeism. While I appreciated the film as a dystopia, I realize that it’s still possible to interpret that film as a work of light fun. Raw, however, is far less ambiguous in its depiction of hazing. Unlike Dazed and Confuses it has a consistent, three-dimensional protagonist and we are made to see how marginalized she feels about her hazing experience.
In its first act, therefore, Raw appears to offer a troika of themes: one is in its scathing depiction of hazing culture, and the other two are vegetarianism and the culture surrounding professional schools. Upon arriving at veterinary school, Justine is compelled to eat a rabbit kidney. That her protest that she can’t because she’s vegetarian is not easily accommodated at a veterinary school in Belgium in 2016 stands out as mind-boggling.
From there the theme of vegetarianism is further developed particularly in a conversation in which Justine objects to the idea of sexually assaulting a monkey. Her compassion is mocked by the boys she shares a lunch table with, before she is ultimately attacked by a female classmate for making what, out of context, sounds like a sexist comment. Justine’s compassion is of a kind that makes her classmates uncomfortable and as such, she is absurdly punished for it.
Just as the themes of vegetarianism and hazing are brought together by the film’s script, so too are the issues of vegetarianism and professional school culture. Justine is quick to raise the absurdity of a veterinary school not anticipating (let alone accommodating) vegetarians in its student body. I read this as a commentary on how, in our current society, many go to medical school seeking prestige and big salaries rather than out of an actual desire to help patients. Similarly, many may go to law school, spouting rhetoric about justice in their cover letters, only to end up doing morally inconsequential (or detrimental) work in corporate fields.
Raw ultimately takes a dark and surreal turn, a turn that, in my view, undermines its initial themes. While some emotional weight is added to Justine’s ultimate fate given the early emphasis the film puts on her vegetarianism, the two plot points are not fundamentally connected (and furthermore, the film’s narrative-focused second act, marks an escape from the analytic approach of the first act).
Nonetheless, I should be mindful, of accusing auteurs of abandoning their thematic commitments when I cannot read their minds. While Raw moves away from the specific themes that engaged me in its first half, it nonetheless maintains a broad commitment to depicting the plight of social outcasts. Justine is not just punished for her vegetarianism, but for her academic success, her clothing choices, etc. And importantly, Justine is not the film’s only outcast. Her roommate, Adrien (Rabah Nait Oufella) is abruptly introduces when she expresses indignation that she was not matched with another girl. He responds by saying “I’m a f*g I guess that counts for them.” While at the time this line feels like a throwaway joke, Adrien gradually gains prominence as a character. His own outsider status makes him a beacon of hope for Justine, a fact that’s not unequivocally good for him.
Finally, Justine’s sister Alexia (Ella Rumpf) is also an outsider, though it is hard for Justine to realize this since, Alexia’s outsider-status stems from her rebellion against her parents (whereas Justine is an outsider because she is loyal to the principles on which she was raised). Justine and Alexia are opposites, but Raw makes clear that “opposite” people can, in a limited way, have a lot in common: strong personalities of all kinds can be penalized for their deviance from a rigid society.
Raw is not a movie for the easily grossed out, and perhaps it’s not 100% the story I wanted it to be. Those disclaimers aside, it’s the kind of work that never has a slow moment and is rife with creative energy from beginning to end. If you’re looking to see some out-there cinema, or are in the mood to se hazing culture crudely taken on, this can be the movie for you.