Gross-out, body horror, torture porn. These are the often frowned upon descriptions of a horror sub-genre that brings human disfigurement and bloodshed to its forefront. For the most part, this particular category has provoked the most controversy out of an already controversial genre. And there certainly is a place for questioning the existence of such gruesome imagery in film. If graphically violent entertainment doesn’t service art, as a way to explore metaphor through brutal and barbaric realism, it can easily come off as cheap, as an easy way to evoke a response of disgust from an audience.
The 2017 French-Belgian horror film, Raw, directed by Julia Ducournau, pushes the boundaries of graphic horror by exploring the inherent animalistic instincts within human beings. Soon after its initial screening, reports of people passing out from the disturbing imagery of Raw began gaining buzz. And if that sounds like an exaggeration for marketing, experiencing the film for yourself may change your disbelief. I’ve watched countless horror films filled to the brim with disturbing and gruesome imagery, but I found various scenes in Raw downright hard to watch. And that’s part of what makes this film so brilliantly effective.
But it isn’t the bloody carnage alone that makes Raw so memorable. This is not another case of Human Centipede, where raunch and disgust are exploited for the audience’s reaction. There is a genuine story of a young woman’s passage from childhood to adulthood at play here. And the grisly displays of violence are used to effectively draw attention to a less glamorous side of that transition. We take an ugly journey of self-discovery with the main character, Justine, and are in turn invited to explore the ugly side of humanity.
Spoilers from here on…
In the opening shot we are shown a long road. One side lined with lush, green tress and the other lined with lifeless, bare branches, devoid of color. A great establishment of the duality of nature soon to be explored. We then meet Justine, whose parents have kept on a strict vegetarian diet her whole life. When she arrives for her first semester of veterinary school, she is introduced to a brand-new freedom she never had under her parent’s rule. Anyone who’s left home for school can relate with this feeling of newfound independence. It leads one to establishing an identity. Raw has rabid fun with this concept as Justine gets her first taste for meat and unlocks a zombie-like flesh eating gene past down from her mother to both her and her sister, Alexia. The metaphor is cut and dry; everyone has primal desires, existing deep within our very DNA that we struggle to hide in order to blend into society. But hunger can only go unfed for so long.
When Justine attends her first party with the other freshman newcomers, they are introduced to what is portrayed as an almost hedonic ritual of carnal desires. They dance and indulge in sexuality as they celebrate their new liberty. But Justine hasn’t conformed yet. At one point she discusses with her peers a monkey’s conscious awareness, arguing that a raped monkey can experience the same psychological trauma as a raped woman. Monkeys can see themselves in a mirror, so they must be as self aware as humans. Yet, Justine’s schoolmates don’t seem to agree with her. They are all on the path to become veterinarians, but everyone other than Justine seems to have no compassion towards the animals they are learning to help. This idea is expanded further as every image of an animal in the movie is shown in cruel and uncomfortable positions, even though it is all apparently for the animal’s own betterment. A horse getting drugged and put to sleep, and then turned upside down in a bizarre mechanism during Justine’s first class is an initial example of this. The movie seems to be communicating that people will help other living beings to conform to social norm, but that compassion will only go so far. After all, humans will help animals in need, but just as easily kill them for food, as any other species does.
The film’s first turn for the truly unpleasant is when Justine develops a gnarly rash as a result of eating a raw rabbit kidney. The sound of the scratching alone can provoke queasiness. Not to mention when the doctor is shown pealing skin off Justine’s rotting flesh. But this is only the start. A deep ugliness is just beginning to manifest. We then transition to Justine’s feverish nightmare under her sheets. She dreams of a horse running in the vacant darkness. The seething animal that lies beneath, trapped by a manmade apparatus. A fierce beast, ready to be set free from a dark hell, held back by human construction. A symbol for Justine’s deep-seated self, yearning for freedom from lifelong constraints.
A strong contender for most disturbing moment in the movie would have to go to the infamous waxing scene. When Justine’s sister, Alexia, loses a finger as a result, we get a drawn out look of what can only be compared to Adam and Eve taking their first bite of forbidden fruit. The scene plays on the audience’s disgust as Justine slowly begins licking and then eating her sister’s severed finger. Possibly the most haunting aspect is the illuminating aesthetic of the scene. We are disgusted at the sight, but the lighting and music portray this indulgence as a release for Justine. She feels a deep pleasure she’s never sensed before. A twisted portrayal of the base instincts all humans take no pride in, but find undeniably gratifying when surrendered to.
The midway point of the movie is when all is revealed. Up until now, we were unsure of where Justine’s repugnant taste for raw meat came from. But here we find out that Alexia has the same inborn relish as Justine. And Alexia has learned to suppress her craving by manipulating drivers on a desolate road into fatally crashing. She then has free rein to snack away on their expired corpses. Justine sees the animal in her sister and, from here on, attempts to surpass her natural instincts as to avoid turning into the same monster as her sister. But this isn’t easy for Justine, as her suppressed cravings turn into an almost lustful need. She develops a craving for her gay roommate, Adrien. Justine’s itching appetite for Adrien is portrayed in a wonderful, and frankly hilarious scene as she watches a shirtless Adrien play soccer with a manic look of hunger on her face. Another interesting aspect to this scene is the soccer game itself. Adrien is engaging in an organized match with his classmates, but the energy quickly shifts from playful and socialized to brutishly combative. Both teams bump chests and square off like two packs of territorial animals. The movie communicates that organized sports can be a showcase of the accomplished structure and socialization people are capable of, and at the same time, a display of their primitive nature. Tying into the theme of humanity’s dualism with both intelligence and animal-based impulses.
Justine finds it continually challenging to ignore her inner zombie. In one undeniably memorable scene, Justine transitions into a nearly hypnotic state as she creepily stares into a mirror and dances erotically to a loud, raunchy song. She kisses and licks the mirror, smearing lipstick. As any human or monkey can, Justine sees her own reflection in the mirror, but her feral mindset in this moment may as well make her indistinguishable from any wild animal. A moment later, Justine adjusts back to a human state before confronting her sister, who has taken a similar craving to Adrien. Justine warns Alexia to stay away and insists that she is nothing like her sister, that she can contain her itching appetite.
When Justine’s yearning can no longer be subdued, she has sex with Adrien in the hope that engaging in another primal desire will relieve her. Adrien has to hold Justine back from biting him as they get it on, but Justine still holds restraint when she takes a bite out of herself instead of Adrien as she climaxes. Justine is teetering the line between basic instinct and humanity, but humanity is still in the lead. She refuses to let her toxic desire hurt or kill another human being. But Alexia plots to exploit Justine’s withheld self, to show Justine that it is impossible to avoid who they are. So, Alexia reveals to their classmates Justine’s zombie side when Justine is blackout drunk and unable to control herself. This leads to a brutal fight between the two, full of bite and blood. The two sisters go full on rabid as the rest of the school watches in horror. Functioning society is now witnessing this family’s shared, hideous behavior for the first time, and they are appalled by it.
The climatic moment comes the following morning when Justine finds a feral Alexia, exhausted from having just eaten Adrien. At this point, it is expected that Justine will give into rage and kill her sister. But instead, Justine chooses humanity, and cares for her sister by cleaning her up before her inevitable imprisonment. When Alexia is visited by Justine and their parents in prison, we are treated to a shot of the two sisters’ faces reflecting onto each other in the dividing window. They are blended into one person. This shot seems to communicate that while both monkeys and humans can identify themselves in a mirror, exemplifying self-awareness in both species, only humans have the ability to see themselves in other people. It is then empathy for fellow human beings that separates humans from other animals. Justine could have given in to vengeance against her older sister, but Justine’s sympathetic understanding that the same barbaric desires exist within the both of them is what leads Justine to ultimately extend mercy to Alexia.
Raw is not a film for everyone. The grotesque visuals are bound to leave many viewers nauseated. However, if you let it, the movie will take you on a narrative journey about the loss of innocence and confrontation of one’s ever-present, primitive self. And the graphic imagery, though difficult to watch, can challenge you to consider your own boorish qualities, bubbling just below the surface, constantly subdued as to adhere to the societal norm.