I blundered into Raw not even knowing it was a horror film, which was the most delicious surprise. Buried under deadlines early in the week, I depended on my friends to pick the movie and didn’t check reviews, summaries, or anything. We went to see the eight o’clock showing of Raw at the Angelika on Houston Street, and luckily, I didn’t get anything at the snack bar. This is not the type of movie where you want to have nibbles by your side.
In the French horror film Raw, studious, square Justine (played by Garance Marillier) is taken to veterinary school by her parents, and early on, it’s established that they are strict vegetarians. She’s dropped off in the parking lot of what looks like a sad, gray industrial complex, where her older sister is supposed to meet her. Justine’s parents aren’t surprised when the older sister’s a no-show, and Justine trudges off alone, dragging her red suitcase, to find her dorm—quite different, I think, from how American parents would be portrayed, dropping off their progeny at college.
Justine finds out that she’s rooming with a male instead of a female, but he tells her he’s gay so the school counts him as a woman. Not sure what to do with herself, Justine goes to bed, only to be woken in the darkest hours of the night by a team of screaming people dressed in graffiti-covered lab coats with masks covering their faces. They toss all the rookies’ beds, clothes, and other belongings out the windows, trashing their rooms, and Justine and fellow first years are made to crawl through some underground complex until they arrive at a raging party, where Justine is finally reunited with her much cooler older sister Alexia (played by Swiss actress Ella Rumpf). This is just the first part of a hazing ritual that all the rookies have to go through.
Similar events happen after that, including one where Justine has to eat a rabbit kidney. She balks at this after being a vegetarian for so long, but her older sister bullies her into doing it. The kidney makes her ill, giving her the dry heaves, but that’s nothing compared to the bloody rash she wakes up with. Watching Justine’s itching reminded me of what happens when I go camping and forget the super-DEET bug spray. Just the sound of her fingernails on skin made me cringe. I get baseball-sized welts after mosquitos bite me, and sometimes the itching is so bad that I’ll go after the bites with a hairbrush, resulting in hamburger skin. But that just happens in an isolated patch. Poor Justine has hamburger skin all over her body once she’s done itching.
Shortly after that, she starts having cravings for meat. They start out mild, with her stealing a hamburger patty from the lunch line and then wolfing down shawarmas with her roommate. But they soon progress to cannibalism, where she experiments with human flesh after an unfortunate waxing incident. It was gag-inducing to watch Justine snacking on a dismembered digit like a chicken wing and hard to look at the screen. I panned across the audience and saw people rolling in their seats, covering their eyes or hiding their faces against their partners. After a few seconds of the eating, though, you do get desensitized. I kept telling myself, it’s just a hot dog, it’s just a hot dog, and it turns out the actress playing Justine had to do something similar to psych herself up for the scene. Marillier told W Magazine, “You know, it was sugar. I was eating candy. If there was any difficulty, it was finding the reality in the scene so I wasn’t thinking, I’m just eating sugar.”
For showings in Los Angeles, staff handed out barf bags to the audience after fainting was reported from Canadian moviegoers. I’m not sure how the two correlate or if that was a marketing scheme, but the gore isn’t gratuitous. Some of the body horror is uncomfortable, but I think that’s because it’s woven in with some gruesome rituals that females engage in for the sake of beauty.
My favorite part of Raw is the intense sister relationship between Justine and Alex. It’s well portrayed with moments of extreme tenderness and thuggish brutality. At one moment, Justine and Alex are getting drunk together and laughing, and in the next, they’re trading bite for bite in a parking lot fight, with one bite in particular reminding me of a hellish scene in Cape Fear. There’s jealousy and competition—the essence of a sister relationship. I wish Raw was around years ago when I compiled “Top Five Sister Horror Movies” because it’s definitely a contender. I might have to revise my list.