Brought up on a strict vegetarian diet by her parents, Justine became conscious that one swallow of meat down her gullet might start a chain reaction of life-threatening allergies. Her legacy acceptance into the prestigious Saint-Exupéry Veterinary School would have a set of challenges toward retaining that diet but her older sister, Alexia, who is still studying at the school and is also a vegetarian, would protect her from the intense hazing brought down upon the freshman class. When it turns out that Alexia gave into the temptations of peer pressure and egged her own to digest meat in a hazing ritual, Justine learns that her sister’s shielding won’t stand up against the forces of elder student pranks. From then on, a primordial animalistic behavior slowly transforms Justine from a quiet, awkward, and studious teenage girl into a party animal, an explorer of sexual awakening, and a herbivore whose slipping from her regime. Justine’s craving for raw meat digs deeper into the bone as the overwhelming need to consume human flesh spirals her down into an uncontrollable descent, turning the school’s exuberant hazing knaveries all the more dangerous.
Having been a meat eater all my life, the transition to vegetarian would be a hard-fought war that would likely shed years off my life just as much as eating a thick, juicy cut of a steak seasoned to perfection and medium cooked. After all, the human race is born with tapered canines that rip through the tough flesh and meat first and then pass along the now tendered feed to our molars, our mashers, that would handle the soft, chewy substance for an easy ride down toward our stomach. “Raw” takes that approach one step further, or maybe two or three steps further, by coupling the sudden discourse from meatless to meaty meals that expands into cannibalism with a coming of age and finding one’s place in life story that can be relatable to us all. The French film is written-and-directed by Julia Ducournau, who reprised herself with another body horror sensation with last year’s acclaimed “Titane,” and was shot at an actual veterinary school in Belgium, the University of Liège. Originally titled “Grave” before being upgraded to “Raw,” the film is a production from a conglomeration of studio labels, including the first horror production for Petit Film. Rouge International (“Murder Me, Monster”), Frakas Productions (“Sea Fever”), Ezekiel Film Production and Wild Bunch (“Martyr”) serve as a few of the film’s other coproduction companies with Jean des Forêts, Julie Gayet, Jean-Yves Roubin, Nadia Turincev, and Cassandre Warnauts as producers.
“Raw” is not your typical girl journeying through the trials and tribulations of normal self-discovery. For this, you need not your typical girl to play centric character Justine. Enters 16-17 year-old Garance Marillier, the Paris-born actress with an established bond on and off screen with director Julia Ducournau having debut her acting in Ducournau’s 2011 short film “Junior” as a tomboy going through a strange corporeal transformation. Fun fact: Marillier has been cast as a different Justine in all three of her collaborations with Julia Ducournau – “Junior,” “Raw,” and “Titane” since 2011. Marillier soaks into “Raw’s” Justine with not only a transcending behavior pattern performance that takes the freshman from stifled to uninhibited, but the young actress also overhauls a complete body language transformation that sheds Justine’s meek skin, literally displayed on screen, for a more confident and abrasive veneer. Ella Rumpf (“Tiger Girl”) receives Justine’s inexperienced blossom-hood with an the older, already initiated, sibling having been fostered by rambunctious peers to break the sheltering chains her parents had shackled with and just like true to life sisters, there’s contention. The vehemence venom between them when they’re on bad terms on screen can stop one’s breath, you can hear a pin drop, yet you still understand their sisterly connection and love no matter how messed up a situation might be, especially when involving boys, such as the pansexual fluidity of Justine’s freshman roommate Adrien, played by Rabah Nait Oufella. “Raw” rounds out the small cast surrounded by a slew of extras with Laurent Lucas and Joana Preiss as mom and dad.
Julia Ducournau has the body horror genre down to the molecular level. It’s as if the filmmaker studied every film and playbook of David Cronenberg just from researching her various work credits that target to restructure and regress the human condition into something far worse and watching “Raw” unravel a symbiotic relationship between natural and unnatural human development blurs that line of what is considered to be normal so disturbingly good. Exteriorly, we notice the changes and can almost set a clock to way our bodies react and change over time, biologically and socially, within the context of our environment. Internally, a whole unexplored set of conditions apply to the unpredictable mindset of transfiguration and that’s where Justine paves an unfounded roadmap for her sudden kick from being a veggie lover to a flesh craver. “Raw’s” undoubtedly an allegory of a young girl’s pubescence and coming of age into her own from, essentially, being on her own exploring her sexuality and exploring new interests as is such with going into university. Ducournau casually strolls through Justine’s drama and tension as much of the body horror overwhelms our morbid curiosity but her angsty complications, still very much underlined even being overshadows, retain a constant line of parallelism in a symbolic reality. Delicate touches of indelicate gore really spice up “Raw’s” entrenching story not for the faint of heart as well as vegetarians.
Hot off the heels of their now out of print limited edition release of “Raw,” Second Sight Films offers a second, standard release on Blu-ray home video. The UK label offers a single disc packaged, region B encoded, BD-50 of a 1080p, high-definition, 2.40:1 aspect ratio presentation, listed at running an average frame bitrate of ~24Mbps. Highly accurate on its bitrate average, the image is well diverse in discerning details without an ambiguous scene or spot in sight. The color often feels muted, dreary, like one long continuous overclouded day that presents an everlasting feeling of dismay. Yet, that isn’t all cinematographer Ruben Impens has to offer with arthouse framing of disturbing imagery and an opening freshman party scene that takes us through the cramp pockets of sweaty, half-naked partygoers in one lengthy, single shot that expels just about everything Justine will face at her time in veterinary school. The French DTS-HD 5.1 master audio superbly distributes the audio tracks with just right levels to accommodate each scene. If there’s a noisy, bass blaring party, the score rightly takes over and the dialogue takes a muted backseat but still clear and intelligible – or so I believe since I don’t understand French, but I can make out the syllables and inflections. Otherwise, dialogue is king and clear alongside an eclectic soundtrack of English indie rock and experimental tracks as well as Jim Williams guitar and industrial synth trek across that’s beautiful and, simultaneously, disconcerting disharmonic. If you missed out on the limited edition, don’t bite yourself as the standard edition as plenty of extra features, including an interview with actress Garance Marillier The Girl Can’t Help It, an interview with producer Jean des Forêts Making Ends Meat, an audio commentary by film critic Alexander West, an audio commentary with director Julia Ducournau and critic Emma Westwood, an interview with Ducournau A Family Affair, the featurette Raw A Votre Gout with Ducournau and Emma Westwood, a conversation between Ducournau and critic Alexandra Heller-Nicholas Quick Bites, a genre matters panel discussion, an Australian premier introduction and post screen Q&A with Ducournau and Kier-La Janise, and a handful of deleted scenes. The film runs at 99 minutes, comes with well synced English subtitles, and is certified 18 for strong gory images and injury detail. Taste “Raw’s” unseasoned, unadulterated, pure and simple line of hidden truths and manifesting urges that once crossed there’s no turning back as the person you once were, is no longer akin to an impossible burger but a fully tendered hunk of mouthwatering meat freshly cut and ready to sink your teeth into.