Justine (Garance Marillier) is a sensitive girl about to start her first year at veterinary school, but a portent of what is to come occurs when she is being driven by her parents to the establishment way out in the middle of nowhere in the French countryside and they stop off at a service station for something to snack on. She takes a plate of mashed potatoes as she is a vegetarian and nothing else on the meat-based menu appealed, but as she is tucking in, a foreign body makes its presence felt in her mouth: a piece of pork sausage. She retches and her mother (Joana Preiss) goes to complain while her father (Laurent Lucas) offers her his plate of veg, but if only she knew the initiation ceremonies at the college would warp her so badly...
Raw, originally known as Grave, was one of that wave of French-speaking horrors from the turn of the millennium onwards that were unafraid to go to extremes, and added a dash of pretension to the mix for beard-strokers to think on, connecting their gore and wild behaviour to whatever social concern the filmmakers appeared to be making reference to. Inside, Martyrs, Frontiere(s)... by the time this was released, you might have thought all the shock value had dissipated from the Gallic genre's variations, and yet when it was screened for the public, there were stories of audience members either walking out, fainting, vomiting or all three, such was the power of this film to generate disgust.
Seasoned horror fans made of sterner stuff may have queried the weak stomachs of those without their constitution: it would seem this was appealing to an arthouse crowd rather than a fright flick fan, and they were more likely to get a touch of the vapours when confronted with a cannibalism yarn. Yes, the C word, one of the least reputable subjects in an oft-disreputable genre, the act of partaking of human flesh the focus of such dodgy efforts as Cannibal Holocaust, or notoriously gruelling experiences as The Texas Chain Saw Massacre; in terms of quality, Raw had more in common with the latter than the tawdry former, though the sick-making aim was more or less the same in this case.
Whether writer and director Julia Ducournau genuinely had more on her mind that revolting her audience was debatable, but she seemed to have something valid to say even if it came out rather confused. Was this an anti-vegetarian movie? You could regard the punishment Justine undergoes for refusing to eat meat as a sick joke against the presumed natural world piety of the more hardline vegans, the notion that if they did have to taste flesh that they would be sent around the bend since they were so fragile. On the other hand, the vehemence with which Ducournau delivered those sequences where Justine was developing her preference for long pig, in all their visceral reaction against this taboo, could well have been equating it with the partaking of any animal product, as the heroine initially considers herself a sensitive and caring human being.
This was drawing towards a conclusion that was less a sobering lesson in ethics, animal or human, and more a sick joke of a punchline, but it was proof that the film was not necessarily intended to be taken as seriously as some of those who watched, love or hate it, might have done. The idea that a horror movie should take the form of a joke was not one that had been seen much in this millennium, building towards a single shot capper on the mayhem that put it all into a different perspective, yet proved effective here and demonstrated a singular sense of humour was at work. Before we reached that point, Raw was a drama that happened to have bloody bits mixed in with its rather more conventional coming of age and struggling with lessons and peer pressure yarn, but the blood assuredly enhanced what could have been deadening and depressing. The fact that Ducournau managed to supply so many downright bizarre, transgressive aspects into her movie was refreshing in that it showed telling the same old story with originality was possible, if the imagination was there. Fine soundtrack by Jim Williams.