The Tender Extremity of Raw

With Julia Docournau’s second feature, Titane, winning the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, more eyes have turned to her astonishing debut, Raw (2016). Though the film debuted to critical acclaim, it has more firmly settled itself as a cult favourite, but one worthy of wider appreciation. It is a film with overt reference points but one of staggering originality (a French extremity that has more in common with Claire Denis and Jean-Luc Godard than with, well, the movement called French Extremity), defined by bold and impactful filmmaking – the kind you rarely get in a debut, even the better ones. It is also a film that is all about the execution, delivering on a twisted premise, that will only appeal to some, with an insightful and emotive work that appeals more inclusively. On paper, an extreme French film about a first year vet student that goes from vegan to anthropophage, losing herself to an all consuming lust for flesh, sounds alienating – deeply niche and definitively nasty. The film is certainly intense, but in practice this is actually a beautiful coming of age film full of nuance and perceptivity, one that exhibits a mastery of the female gaze and is in general conversation with the titans (or Titanes) of French cinema.

Raw. Dir. Julia Docournau.

When I first saw Raw, I already knew I would like it. As a horror fanatic, gore hound, fan of feminist cinema and a lover of a good coming of age film, this looked right up my street. However, I was not expecting to love it quite as much as I did; leaving a cinema screening with the firm belief that it was the best film of the decade, and the century (and, by extension, the millennium) – a strong stance that has only solidified in my mind in the years since. My original viewing was also a memorable one, due to an incident beforehand. It was a late screening, the final slot of the night. It is that point where the front of house staff want you to go in so they can just go home, and a time when the clientele get, let’s say, eclectic. It was a Friday night, a point where people are mostly in more conventional places or relaxing at home. At this point, you get a small crowd in a cinema, mostly populated by those with nowhere really to go, and often those filling time before a late – or the last – train home. It is also the time where those who have been working into the evening finally get to leave, and decide to catch a film – any film – before heading home. People driven purely by the determination to do something with their days when work has cannibalised their time since the morning.

This anecdote concerns itself with one of those individuals. A visible weariness sat upon his features, life lay heavy upon him and he clearly just wanted to see a movie, any movie. It is only in retrospect that I’ve realised this scene was like something out of the film, or thematically related. One of the film’s many strengths is how it handles the uncanny. The word Lynchian is overused but applies here, as the film manages to reveal the surreal, and the sinister, in the banal. Though this is a grounded work, it is populated by moments of real strangeness, but these moments rise out of reality instead of seeming opposed to it – or outside of it. To watch Raw is to be reminded of the surreal moments that occur everyday, those slight moments of strangeness that pepper our existence – an after dark quality. A later scene in Raw is lit by an oppressive green – the film as a whole has an Argentoesque approach to lighting – and is set in a hospital’s emergency waiting room. It’s dark, it’s strange and the unreality of the staging matches the genuine sense of unreality that creeps into normality when it goes past a certain hour. In the cinema, before seeing Raw, I have a tired man ordering an off-menu and unauthorised combination of ice-creams, condoned by a staff member who just wants to go home and has to use up this stock anyway. In Raw‘s emergency room, an old man stares at our protagonist and unhooks his false teeth from his gums. Life is strange.

Raw. Dir. Julia Docournau.

After ordering, and precariously balancing, a mountain of unconventional ice-cream combinations, the tired man sighed out a question: what films are showing? The answer was a choice of only two remaining screenings: Raw or Ghost in the Shell (2017, yes, the remake). The overworked ice cream wielder was unfamiliar with both and asked for advice; the renegade ice-cream server, unable to muster up a genuine recommendation, just pointed out that Raw had better reviews. Undeniably true. And the man chose Raw. The man chose Raw completely unaware of what he was about to watch. The man chose Raw and went into it with a tower of ice-cream ready to decompress and escape from the world. I imagine the first shock was the film being in French. I cannot imagine how he felt about the rest. I wanted to catch him afterwards, surely he must have been like one of the characters in Event Horizon (1997) who had stared not only into the endless void of space, but into hell itself. Or would watching Raw in these circumstances be more akin to standing in the Total Perspective Vortex from Douglas Adams’ Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy radio series (1978). Surely he was either a broken or liberated man, one who had stared directly into the abyss – completely unknowingly – to see it not only gazing back but gazing back with teeth. I was primarily reminded of a moment in Terry Gilliam’s divisive adaptation of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998) – a moment that exists in the book, but it is the scene that echoes in my mind – in which an unassuming man opens a bathroom door only to see all manners of excess: sex, drugs, rock n’ roll. Our narrator, lifting from Hunter S. Thompson’s novel remarks that “with a bit of luck, his life was ruined forever. Always thinking that just behind some narrow door in all of his favorite bars, men in red woolen shirts are getting incredible kicks from things he’ll never know.” Once you’ve entered a film, sight unseen, and it turns out to be Raw, does that mean every film could be Raw? How do you deal with wider cinema after that? I will always wonder how that film changed him, because I know it changed him. I wanted to find him afterwards but, one, I couldn’t; two, I’m sure he was not ready for conversation.

Neither was I, after first watching the film. Bar grand statements to my partner about the extreme quality of the film, I was only just beginning to process it. It is a film that dominated my mind for days after – and one that seeped into my dreams. They talk about how horror films give you nightmares, this wasn’t that. The film just stuck with me. I could not shake it and did not want to. Part of this is because of its obvious extremity, this is a film famous for its gross-out content. But to focus on this is to miss-sell the film. It is not a restrained film but it makes great use of restraint. Every grotesque image is in service of something greater, an intentional step in a character arc and an integral part of a thematic work. Also, sometimes it is what you don’t see that really sticks with you. The film welds its perspective to the subjective lens of our main character, Justine (Garance Marillier). We see what she sees, narratively speaking, the Suspiria (1977) influenced lighting denoting her emotional state – and disorientation – but also feeling plausibly real in a way it never does in Argento’s film (as that is in no way what that work is going for). Once again, the film finds the unnerving in the normal, confronting us not with a hyperreality but with how abrasive and unsettling our actual reality is. To return to the lens though, we also do not see what Justine does not see. The most powerful moments of the film are ones of omission and implication. There is a gap in time and then we deal with aftermath or discovery; it’s reminiscent of the greatest strength of The Blair Witch Project (1999), and the reason that film stands above almost all other found footage horrors: it knows that stopping the camera is where horror lies. We can deal with what we can see; we can deal with what we can know. Things that are locked off to us, but that definitively happened and affect us, that’s what keeps you up at night. Raw pulls this trick a couple of times, blacking out the visuals as Justine loses consciousness (or one time gets too drunk). This pairing of our view and her view is an empathetic one – this is an empathetic work – and it shows her vulnerability. The core themes of the film are feminist, and are very aware of the power dynamics – and social hierarchies – that are used to oppress women. Our not knowing, and our finding out – and finding out remnants forever defined by uncertainty, exposes her precarity and amplifies the wider themes of how people can be taken advantage of – and about loss of control.

Raw. Dir. Julia Docournau.

To be blunt, Raw is an arresting and confronting work. It is this way from the very start also, as it starts a conversation with wider French cinema before making it clear it is very much its own thing. We open on the scene above, the kind of image that instantly evokes France – and French cinema. Trees in ordered rows lining a road cutting through a flat expanse of field, a car speeding through, this could be Godard’s iconic À Bout de Souffle (Breathless, 1960). Though, the nearer Godardian reference point is Weekend (1967); whatever the reference, it is a transporting image. Wider cinema is hinted at here also, we cut from this to an extreme car crash and the overall sequence bears an overt – but hyperbolised – connection to Trois couleurs: Bleu (1993). The injury detail, and the cold, clinical atmosphere of this striking opening also brings Cronenberg’s superlative Crash (1996) to mind. It is an interesting assortment of references and actually deeply indicative of the wider work. The film has the audacity and visual confidence of early Godard, a film willing to go its own way in the knowledge that it is doing it right – that its way may be new, but that it is the way to go. There is also the beauty and emotional resonance of Kieślowski’s Bleu, with a similar focus on character and a profound emotional arc. Both films are sensitive works, and while their intensities are different they both have this emotion in common. Finally, we have the transgressions of Crash with the body horror of an earlier Cronenberg; yet, we also have Crash‘s astute understanding of the extreme, of social malaise, of cycles of destruction and of endless appetites. Crash and Raw are works that show our real selves back to us, real selves we may not be ready to see but images that give us real insights into core truths of the human condition.

There are wider reference points though, also. When interviewed, writer and director Ducournau spoke of a formative moment being accidentally watching The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) as a child. It affected her deeply and defined an obsession with extremity. The mind returns to the man in the cinema: is being exposed – without preparation – to the Grand Guignol gore of Raw analogous to watching The Texas Chain Saw Massacre on late night TV, far too young, by yourself? Does our resistance to, or unfamiliarity with, the extreme make it stronger? Maybe he’s the next Julia Ducournau – I hope that somebody is, and I also hope that Ducournau continues to work at this level. After all, Ducournau feels like the new Claire Denis (which is excellent, as we already have one Claire Denis working at full strength at the moment). In another interview, Ducournau was asked if she had seen Denis’ cult cannibal film, Trouble Every Day (2001), a film about insatiable desire and obsession told through the extreme metaphor of cannibalism – in which our overpowering lust for each other, and each other’s bodies, spills over into blood soaked gore. A ravaging in every sense of the word (it’s an interesting film, one certainly not for everyone). Ducournau laughed, of course she had seen it. After all, the proof is in the film. You do not get Raw without Trouble Every Day. You also don’t get Ducournau’s visual style without Claire Denis, and her regular cinematographer Agnès Godard (Raw itself is shot, stunningly, by Ruben Impens).

Raw. Dir. Julia Docournau.

The way Raw understands bodies is closely related to the work of Denis. Though a filmmaker with a wider array of skills and obsessions, the core of Denis’ work is an understanding of the physicality of bodies. After all, we are not bodies, we just control them – or try to. Bodies are objects of fascination, objects of violence (often) and objects that interact with physical space. As seemingly obvious as this sounds, the films of Denis display this better than anybody else. She captures bodies in motion, isolating parts of them and showcasing how their movements create conflict with the air around them. Bodies dominate physical spaces and impose, they exist – frequently – in opposition to their surroundings. In Raw, Ducournau (and Impens) have a similar eye for bodies. Bodies dance through this film, colliding with the frame, colliding with the air and intersecting with each other. The focus on bodies as physical objects, often shown through footage that isolates body parts or keeps elements out of frame for effect (as opposed to just focusing on what is in frame), is tied to the film’s themes about body autonomy and identity. This is a coming of age film, one of the very best coming of age films. It is of such high quality because of its holistic depiction, this is not only a film about mental growth, it is a film about how our identities can clash with our physicality (most notably, our bodies), and how our body’s actions are beyond our control. There are early points in the film where Justine’s body rebels: it gets covered with a grotesque rash, rejecting the meat that Justine has been forced to eat. Raw is a film about relationships, ones often defined by chiastic shifts in power (most notably true of the pitch perfect depiction of a sister and sister relationship in which roles reverse and mirror, and each character defines the other – shown through overt plot points and by small moments like Justine’s sister, towards the end of the film, wearing the cute and childish rainbow-unicorn t-shirt Justine wears at the start). Justine’s relationship with her body is part of this focus. She wants to conform to fit external pressure but her body rejects this; her being imprisoned in this way is a wider symbol of her cultural imprisonment. Justine is a perennial outsider, as the film always shows. She is not one of the cool kids at college – barely wanting to join in the initiation rituals – but she is also maligned by one member of staff for being successful and academic. She is forced between multiple camps and always held in a liminal space, another wider symbol for the precarity of growing up and the specific realities that face women (especially in a college environment).

The film is also aware of social issues, though does not force these points. One of Raw‘s more horrific sequences involves Justine coughing up large amounts of her own hair. It is disgusting but is an extension of the scene before, where she is nervously chewing on her hair while being told off. These nervous habits come back to plague her and show the long reaching effects of degradation, and of anxiety. Justine is maligned and pushed down, but in a depressingly normalised way. Her treatment is so instantly recognisable as common place, and so specifically gendered, that it cannot help but shine a confronting light on these societal issues when it shows the damage done to this character. But, the ideas go deeper. This throwing up scene in a toilet knows the semiotics at play, it knows what a girl throwing up in a bathroom denotes. This is in conversation with a film that is very much about our relationship with food, our need to moderate our consumption but also to deal with the immense pressure around us. Yes, on the surface it is an extreme film about a young girl becoming a cannibal but it is also, very much so, a film about the complexities around food consumption – about our literal appetites. Justine is forced to eat in secret, to sneak food out of the cafeteria (and shamed for this: an early, heart-breaking scene has a server humiliate Justine by making her produce and hold out the burger she pocketed from the canteen, even after it has been paid for and the issue dealt with), and is deeply guilty about what she consumes. On a literal level, this self-disgust makes sense, on a more metaphorical level it is about how we are forced to behave around food – and how this is normalised and disturbingly accepted. Much later in the film is a smaller, but very powerful moment. Justine has witnessed something grotesque that she was to blame for. She leaves the hospital and throws up in the carpark – making herself vomit on purpose to cope with the nausea. A nurse walks past, clearly sees a young girl making herself sick. The nurse does not even react. The nurse puts two and two together and obviously knows what she thinks she is seeing. What she thinks she is seeing should be alarming, and a cause for concern in and of itself. Her ignoring it and moving on is a powerful show of how normalised certain behaviours are, and how wrong this is. As a whole, though, Justine’s extreme addiction is a reflection of addiction, of the addictions that are forced onto us. This need to conform resonates throughout the film, shown through a transforming character.

Raw. Dir. Julia Docournau.

The end credits of Raw start with Julia Ducournau and then list the key actors, each is given a screen of their own (one name at a time) and each name has ‘avec’ before it: ‘with’. This is an indicative statement as, though this is a film with a clear directorial voice, it is a work of real collaboration. The second credit in the sequence just says: ‘Avec Garance Marillier’, a fair statement as it is very much Marillier’s film. Marillier, as previously mentioned, played Justine. Justine really is the whole film. This is a film light in exposition, a film in which the quotable lines are not dialogue but facial expressions – or the way a character holds themselves. The progression of the narrative is as much evident in the progression of Marillier’s face as in any line of dialogue, or any set-piece moment. Director Barry Jenkins gets a lot of (deserved) credit for his powerful use of facial closeups, himself stating an influence being Jonathan Demme. The idea that a face alone, the right face, can tell a story goes further back than this – all the way to silent cinema. While the soundscape of Raw (Jim Williams’ soundtrack is incredible as it flirts with as many multiple tones as the film – feeling bespoke, ordered and refined, and then completely out of control the next instant) is integral to the work, the narrative approach feels straight out of silent cinema. There are so many moments when everything is told through a gesture, moments that show a mastery of context, of character and of craft. There is an extremely violent moment towards the end, where our character bites a chunk out of their arm – during a sex scene. In description, this sounds just horrible – and it is a nasty image – but in context it is somewhat beautiful, touching at the least. At no point is this ever said, but we know – through how well the viewer has been guided – that this biting of the self is a way of not biting the other. This act of violence is actually an expression of intimacy and affection – just a twisted one. It is also yet another moment that represents the toxic relationship so many have with our bodies, and what we are willing to do to them for the sake of others (even when we would not accept that same treatment being done to others).

The furthest progenitor of Raw though, as pretentious as it sounds, is Dreyer’s La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc (1928). Joan is famously played by Renée Jeanne Falconetti, who Dreyer saw on stage. She was in one film before this, and no films after this. It is one of the most iconic, and simply one of the greatest, performances in cinema. Her turn is famous because of her face, and her eyes. Dreyer focuses on her face (nothing else is in shot, the backgrounds an unnatural white), the narrative – the emotion, the everything – is written through her facial expressions. Raw is not as singular in its focus but is of a similar impact. Again, this is a pitch-perfect coming of age tale in which the way our protagonist holds herself, and emotes, charts her journey. We can read everything into her every glance. She starts with an overt timidity, an expression her sister later adopts as the dynamics shift (before shifting again, and again). But her gaze steels; her visage shifts. We learn so much about her, about what is done to her – and about the weight she is baring – through her face. This film is a literal journey into becoming a monster, using the taboo topic of cannibalism. That taboo is used metaphorically though, an indicator of what society allows and does not allow. The college lifestyle forced upon her is all about giving license to the worst in humanity, about performative extremity. Here, the logic of the film starts to re-align with Cronenberg’s Crash. Society sells us excess and enables the immoral, what happens when we follow that to its logical conclusion? What happens when we fully indulge? What happens when we show society’s true face through its consequences? And who gets away with what? Justine is a pariah here, a figure that inspires fear and ridicule. She is Robert Louis Stevenson’s Hyde, the true face of a society warped by a paradoxical cocktail of repression and excess. But she’s also the girl that bites back, and that bites back harder.

Raw. Dir. Julia Docournau.

But Raw is not a hopeless or nihilistic work – nor a cruel one. It is always aware of the metaphor. It is always aware of its status as a coming of age film. Cannibalism is just a combative way of showing losing oneself, letting loose and giving into an atmosphere of indulgence. It is horrifying here because the reality of college culture is horrifying. Ultimately, though, Raw is a film about being yourself – as clichéd as that sounds. At the start, Justine is defined by a parental expectation; then she is defined by her teachers; then her classmates. Then she is defined by her behaviours and obsessions, but the whole time she is a fluid object – a mercurial thing trying to find a consistent form in an atmosphere of constant heat. Through the film, Justine learns what she isn’t and also what she is. She mostly learns that we do not come of age. We do not just come together and coalesce at a point. Our identities, to an extent, are a process; we make ourselves over time. The ending movements of Raw bring to mind a perfect couple of lines from a wonderful poem (History) by John Burnsides:

“But this is the problem: how to be alive / in all this gazed-upon and cherished world and do no harm.”

In this film we see how all is gazed upon, how life for all is pressure and expectation but how it weighs heaviest on some. We also see beauty and joy – the sororal moments that punctuate the extremity and the trauma are just wonderful. But the question remains, how do we do no harm? How do we live with ourselves without damaging ourselves? How do we adhere to ourselves, and our desires, without damaging others? Raw ends perfectly – and suitably extremely, with a sly wink and a deft piece of visual storytelling. But in this extremity and boundary pushing is a core truth: we find coping mechanisms. We find ways to get by. To live with ourselves, we have to live with others – and so the end is shocking but actually beautiful. This is a film all about how a woman is ostracised and isolated, forced into abhorrent acts, but how her lust for flesh is an echo of a lust for connection. A want for others as a want of others. The film ends by alluding to how we need connection; to how we need each other. We support each other. To quote Audrey Hepburn, ‘The best thing to hold onto in life is each other’.

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