The best horror finds the horrific in unexpected places. It’s a time or a subject or location that no one’s yet thought of as a potential foundation for horror, but the moment we all see it, we recognize it. “Yes,” we think. “That is scary.”
In Raw, writer/director Julia Ducournau finds the horror in freshman year. It’s not that Raw is the first horror movie featuring a college freshman, but here, it’s a theme central to the narrative rather than an incidental plot point. Leaving home, living somewhere new and independent of rules and routine for the first time, finding an entirely new and shockingly adult group of people to impress, being forced to relearn study habits in the face of freedom and oppressive partying – it’s terrifying. It’s why so many college freshmen fail, or get their first Cs along with their first hangovers. It’s too much freedom, a reminder that parental rule, while annoying, is generally for our own damn good.
Garance Marillier is Justine, who is leaving home to study at a veterinary school where her older sister Alexia (Ella Rumpf) already attends. When her parents drop Justine off, Alexia is supposed to be there to meet her, but she never shows, the first sign that Justine’s going to have to brave these waters without the guidance of her big sister. She falls asleep, alone in her dorm, and wakes in the middle of this very first night to sirens and chaos. She’s dragged out of bed to her first party, and it’s bacchanalia, utter mayhem. It’s where Justine sees Alexia for the first time, and her sister seems different. She seems wild. “You’ll love it,” Alexia breathes drunkenly into Justine’s ear. “The first year is the best.”
If you don’t know the specifics of Raw’s horror, you shouldn’t. Something monstrous happens. The gore is phenomenal. There’s a scene that entails nothing more than Justine vigorously scratching her arms and legs in bed, and it’s one of the hardest to watch moments in recent cinema. Don’t spend too much time seeking out the details of this plot. Let yourself be surprised by Raw.
Marillier and Rumpf are perfectly cast. Marillier is all doe-eyed trepidation while Rumpf is smoldering and dangerous. They share a closeness that marks them as inextricably connected in their finest moments, but there’s a simmering resentment there, too. Alexia is put out that she’s expected to be responsible for Justine, this naïve little girl who seems designed to cramp Alexia’s style at every turn. Justine, meanwhile, can’t understand Alexia’s new life of drugs and booze and boys, and only wants her childhood friend back.
At times, Alexia takes on the role of edifying big sister, but even those lessons are tinged with mocking and end in disaster. Alexia dresses Justine in a sexy mini and pumps, but Justine can’t walk in high heels and keeps stumbling. Alexia tries to teach Justine to pee standing up, but Justine ends on the ground, covered in her own urine. Alexia waxes Justine’s bikini line in a remarkably suspenseful scene that ends in horror, though not the horror you’re expecting. Their relationship is scary and recognizable and sad. It’s also lovely at times. They’re sisters, and they’re rivals. It's a dichotomy that makes up the bloody heart of Raw, a relationship that should feel safe but isn't. Alexia should be Justine's harbor in this frightening new environment, but instead she's just another waiting precipice.
This is a bold film. Ducournau directs with such certainty, a visual, tonal and thematic confidence that add up to a very deliberate and singular whole. It's a stunning locale, this veterinary school in the middle of France, surrounded by dense woods and winding highways, and instead of the usual classroom auditoriums we have horses on treadmills and students with their arm's elbow-deep inside livestock. Raw is at once beautiful and brutal. It's stylish and incredibly gross. And it’s smart. It's a gift of a scary movie, one that's rooted in character and story, a female-led narrative of deep horror and sharp insight.