One of the primary roles that the horror film fulfils within popular culture is to encapsulate the anxieties of early adulthood. There are countless films explicitly about the path from one’s teens to some semblance of adulthood, films chronicling the first kiss, the rites of passage, the shedding of innocent illusions and the attainment of independence. But the ungainly awkwardness of the subsequent years is best chronicled obliquely, with hulking boogiemen standing in for the challenges of truly shedding one’s infancy. There are few films that understand that as well as Julie Ducournau’s Raw (or, per its vastly superior French title, Grave).
Raw’s protagonist, Justine (Garance Marillier), is swiftly exposed to the entirely mundane horrors of tertiary education. A gifted student, her first night living on campus at a veterinary college is interrupted by masked seniors throwing her mattress from her bedroom window in the middle of the night. She’s marched alongside a throng of underdressed freshman down the stairs to a mysterious basement, which soon transforms into a suitably bacchanalian dance party. In a single take, Ducournau’s camera roves through the sweaty masses of teenagers thrashing about and making out. The scene has the exaggerated quality familiar in cinematic parties – no-one seems to be bored, everyone’s either has no clothes on or their tongue down someone’s throat – but rather than playing like a celebratory music video, it’s claustrophobically terrifying.
Rather than continuing the tradition of slasher-era Hollywood horror that punishes horny young adults for their proclivities via a machete-wielding brute, Raw taps into an older history: vampirism and cannibalism (with a dash of genuinely grotesque body horror). Yet long before the film shows its cards, it establishes an emotional baseline. I can’t speak to everyone’s experience moving from secondary school to university, but Raw’s depiction of the transition is spot on. It’s terrifying. It’s exciting. It’s empowering and disempowering and deeply disorienting.
I don’t want to reveal too many of Raw’s secrets – though I should warn it’s not suited to weak stomachs – but without going into specifics, Justine’s experience in the vet school is at once ludicrously macabre and utterly relatable. It was for me, at least. My post-school years may not have included raw rabbit liver, paint-splattered makeouts or a ravenous hunger for human flesh, but they did feel an awful lot like this. (The fact that I attended a residential college and (initially, at least) studied biology may be a factor here – your mileage may vary.)
For me, university presented a cornucopia of opportunities unavailable in high school. Unshackled by the supervision of parents or teachers, I was free to indulge in the debaucherous pleasures of adulthood. But free is the wrong word. College life came with intense social pressures – to fit in, to over-indulge, to push yourself beyond your limits. That’s thrilling, yes, but Raw captures why this is the perfect setting for a horror film: breaching one’s own limits is, at best, incredibly uncomfortable. Most effectively, Ducournau portrays how the exact same behaviour and desires that are celebrated within this sphere can also be weaponised against you. Promiscuity is great, unless you’re a slut; risky behaviour is admired and ridiculed in equal measure. Raw is a film about cannibalism, but it’s also about how enclosed societies tear you down to their level and tear you apart if you don’t conform.
Raw is Ducournau’s feature debut, and while it’s demonstrative of significant ability – particularly in those party scenes, as lensed by cinematographer Ruben Impens – it’s also occasionally undercut by unnecessary adherence to convention. In particular, while the score is often leveraged effectively – particularly when it’s used to illuminate the screenplay’s flashes of humour – its reliance on shrill, rising strings lessens an otherwise distinctly original film.