Essays · Movies

‘Raw’ and the Grisly Rituals of Growing Up

Through the artful presentation and deconstruction of implicit and explicit social mores, filmmaker Julia Ducournau forces us to confront the animal in all of us.
Raw Garance Marillier
Focus World
By  · Published on August 24th, 2019

Julia Ducournau’s brutal character study Raw is a particularly unique addition to the canon of coming-of-age movies. The film rages against demonstrations of peer and societal pressure. Through various depictions of ritualistic behavior, Raw makes a compelling case for the striking comparison between monstrosity and personal growth.

Raw’s protagonist, Justine (Garance Marillier), poetically personifies this discomfiting notion. A seemingly timid and – in the character’s own words – “average” young woman, she is set to attend veterinary school, aiming to follow in the distinguished footsteps of her parents and more rebellious older sister Alexia (Ella Rumpf). However, although Justine tries to fulfill the many expectations that her family and newfound peers place upon her, she discovers that rites of passage into regular adulthood are ill-suited for her insatiable desire to be autonomous and free.

Ducournau’s intimate, gruesome, and sometimes comedic storytelling perfectly melds with Ruben Impens’ arresting cinematography to tell this tumultuous tale of self-discovery. As the filmmaker stated in an interview with the Guardian, she sought to portray, “the human condition with a lot of honesty. […] I wanted the audience to feel for [Justine], and to understand that it’s actually being very human to be like this.” Thus, whether its societal rituals are implicitly or explicitly presented, Raw turns an unflinching eye towards the dissection and consumption of humans and animals alike, literally or otherwise.

We first meet Justine in a cafeteria, characterized by her eating habits. She grew up in a household of strict vegetarians and curiously, her family is so stringent about their diet that any inclusion of meat in their meals is frowned upon. “This shit really gets me,” Justine’s mother grumbles after a meatball randomly turns up in her daughter’s mashed potatoes. “What if you were allergic?”

Upon first impressions, Justine’s home life is stifling and it’s easy to see how this would inspire a heightened sense of anticipation for when she finally heads off to vet school. Justine gears up for a chance at a completely different life on campus, hurtling towards some sense of potential independence. Come to find out that school operates on its own ceremonial traditions, though. In contrast to the oppressive nature of Justine’s home life, the vet school’s extreme hazing traditions are ostensibly undertaken in the name of freedom and unbridled personal expression.

On the night of Justine’s arrival, she is jolted out of bed by a barrage of loud music and chanting that collectively signal the beginning of the institution’s aggressive rituals. Justine is shoved into a packed hallway with other befuddled pajama-clad freshmen, including her friendly new roommate Adrien (Rabah Naït Oufella). Meanwhile, masked upperclassmen raid their rooms, leaving their belongings haphazardly strewn or tossed out the windows. The first-year cohort is then led across campus to an uproarious welcome party – made to crawl there rather than walk.

Justine silently shuffles alongside the rest of her peers. Adrien, who’s next to her, tries to lighten the mood and assure her that “[i]t’s just a game.”

Even so, it sure is a cruel game that reinforces uncomfortable, alienating youthful shenanigans. Justine is thoroughly discombobulated when faced with the sheer intensity of the night’s festivities. At the party, the camera mimics her scattered point-of-view, weaving between groups of people that she is unwittingly propelled between. The audience experiences the same overwhelming crush of sweaty, wasted bodies that Justine does. They are privy to how unsure she is about her place among such frenzied contemporaries.

To Justine’s relief, though, she gets to reunite with her sister, who takes her away from the bustling party into the quieter morgue nearby. The film wastes no time establishing Alexia to be Justine’s diametrical opposite in terms of both appearance and personality. The former is more carefree and abrasive than the latter. She shows a noticeable proclivity for pranks in the name of sibling rivalry, while Justine adopts the attitude of a people-pleaser.

Alexia radiates the confidence of a cool social butterfly who is well-liked among the upperclassmen. So, there doesn’t seem a better person to advise Justine on how to survive the school year without being deemed a “traitor” to tradition. This involves Rush Week hazing, wherein first-years “learn to be a team, to obey, to be good rookies.” Freshmen must perform a myriad of tasks that range from the mildly annoying to the downright degrading. For instance, new students address seniors as “elders” or “great ones” and must allow the upperclassmen to have control over how they dress. They are also drenched in animal blood for their inaugural class photo.

That said, the ritual that impacts Justine the most involves the consumption of raw rabbit kidney. She tries to talk her way out of it, but her repeated attempts to assert her vegetarianism fall on deaf ears. As a last resort, Justine implores Alexia to stand up for her. The latter only urges her to participate. “Everybody does it,” Alexia tells Justine. “Don’t start the year by chickening out. They’re watching.”

The rabbit kidney serves as the unsuspecting catalyst for Justine’s transformation. Not long after she eats it, she develops a strong rash itchy enough to keep her up at night. A visit to the infirmary determines this ailment to be a severe allergic reaction due to food poisoning. Per doctor’s orders, Justine should fast for 24 hours to eradicate any suspected toxins from her system.

Still, although merely in the early stages of her budding carnivorous obsession, Justine proclaims that she is already feeling ravenous: “I am hungry, though. My stomach always feels empty.”

Justine yearns to eat meat so much that she attempts to steal some from the school cafeteria. Adrien happens to witness this unusual behavior and offers to take Justine to a gas station so she can try a kebab in private. But she is still unsatisfied, turning instead to the raw chicken in their refrigerator. Her escalating meat craving becomes a dirty little secret.

Feeling inevitably and uncontrollably yanked away from the values that have shaped her since birth, Justine approaches Alexia for reassurance out of desperation. And in a well-intentioned bid to ensure her little sister doesn’t feel like a “reject,” Alexia casually suggests that they bond over another fairly commonplace ritual: body hair removal.

Of course, in this case, the pain of a bikini wax doesn’t simply run skin-deep. The procedure begins amusingly enough until Alexia resorts to using a pair of scissors to cut off the wax that’s stuck to Justine’s skin. Frightened over a potential accident, Justine violently kicks her away, resulting in Alexia accidentally chopping her finger off.

Alexia proceeds to faint in shock. Justine scrambles to preserve the severed appendage after phoning emergency services, but the temptation for flesh overpowers her. She is enraptured by the finger and after a small taste, devours it. Alexia herself regains consciousness there and then, horrified as she catches Justine in the act.

Things only snowball from this point forth. Shockingly enough, no one else finds out about the events that transpired in Alexia’s dorm, because she has a secret of her own. The sisters share similar cannibalistic urges. However, Alexia’s time away from home has allowed her to develop a less risky method of satiating these tendencies.

Alexia finds her prey by waiting on the side of a largely deserted tree-lined road. She jumps out into oncoming traffic and causes awful car wrecks for access to fresh bodies. Despite Justine judging this as a morally abhorrent act, Alexia delivers an effective impassioned defense: “I did this for you, idiot! You need to learn, right?”

Now, Justine has little choice but to confront her own predations. Her swelling blood lust further adopts a sexual dimension, as well. This is most notably explored in a specific budding desire for Adrien. Their curious sexual exploration quickly turns feral on Justine’s part, though, after she disturbingly attempts to bite Adrien several times during sex.

Still, it takes an even more humiliating social ritual for Justine to reach the peak of her metamorphosis. At another student party, she gets blackout drunk and the last thing she remembers from that night is following her sister into the school’s morgue once again. It may seem like Alexia repeating some typical big sister behavior, but the reality is much darker.

Alexia takes advantage of Justine for the cruel entertainment of other partygoers that night. Per a video recording on Adrien’s phone, Justine observes herself as a snarling animalistic creature that Alexia cruelly tempts with the arm of a corpse. Onlookers react to the scene in disgust and morbid fascination yet do nothing to stop it.

Finally well and truly alienated, Justine attacks Alexia in front of other students. Their fight culminates in gory violence when the girls tear chunks of each other’s flesh off. Surprisingly, such a macabre display actually provides a critical moment of catharsis for both sisters. Here, Justine and Alexia are at an unconventionally intimate impasse, their gazes locked as their jaws clamp tightly on each other’s arms. They are finally fully unraveled before one another and can either come to terms with the harsh reality of their compulsions or let their unique connection fracture.

Justine trades normalcy for her sister’s unbridled instincts and sadly, Adrien takes the fall once more. At the conclusion of Rush Week, a peaceful Justine wakes next to him. However, upon noticing that Adrien is bleeding profusely, she throws back the bed covers to reveal that his thigh had been mangled in the night and eaten clean to the bone.

Initially, Justine is in hysterics, blaming herself for Adrien’s ghastly fate after observing faint blood smears around her mouth. Eventually, she notices a puncture wound in his back and quickly searches around the dorm room for the murder weapon. It doesn’t take long for her to locate it as well as a catatonic blood-stained Alexia, the true culprit.

Furious at the loss of a true friend, Justine quietly threatens to kill Alexia in retaliation. In the end, they are sisters of the same vein. Thus, Justine fights this forbidding impulse, finding compassion for her sister and allowing them to share a fleeting moment of closeness.

Subsequently, Alexia is charged with Adrien’s murder and sent to prison. As for Justine, she lives at home again. Her predictably austere mother demands that she eats all her vegetables without complaint. That said, a particular father-daughter conversation delivers one last startling twist on Justine’s quest of self-actualization.

Justine’s father states that she and Alexia are not to blame for what has transpired. Rather, Justine is required to search for a “solution,” much like her mother and sister had. Unbuttoning his shirt to reveal aged scars and chunks of missing flesh from his torso, he finally reveals to a teary Justine that cannibalism runs deep in the women of their family. They alone must decide how to satiate it.

Raw constructs and dismantles a variety of social rituals, framing its women in conflicting but unexpectedly empowering ways. Ducournau succinctly explains that “[Justine manages] to escape her own determinism” throughout the film. Raw‘s unabashed provoking imagery and deeply empathetic storytelling make even the most unsettling monstrosities watchable and eerily relatable. In essence, the movie is about metamorphosis in its purest and most unapologetic form. Ducournau challenges the audience to approach her antiheroine with a critical mind without simply judging or vilifying her for some dark, yet ultimately human tendencies.

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Sheryl Oh often finds herself fascinated (and let's be real, a little obsessed) with actors and their onscreen accomplishments, developing Film School Rejects' Filmographies column as a passion project. She's not very good at Twitter but find her at @sherhorowitz anyway. (She/Her)