Julia Ducournau is driven.
After the French filmmaker’s Palme d’Or-winning sophomore feature Titane, about a female serial murderer carnally inclined toward cars, that much is indisputable. Yet the relentless, cage-rattling thrill of Titane (now in theaters) is that it goes nowhere you’d expect, racing forward in pursuit of a singular, savage vision without mapping out its ultimate direction (tonal or otherwise).
Whenever Ducournau’s at the wheel, she’s seemingly fueled by instinct, animal impulse, and a fascinatingly amorphous view of metaphor. Metamorphosis — the more physically icky and narratively oblique, the better — is at the heart of her ferociously feminist horror movies. The filmmaker first made her mark in 2016 with her dazzling feature debut Raw, about a young woman who begins to crave human flesh while at veterinary school.
Half a decade before Titane propelled Ducournau to her current heights, Raw cemented the filmmaker as a ferociously imaginative, fast-rising talent. With Titane in theaters, it’s time to revisit Raw — luckily, it’s streaming on Netflix.
For 16-year-old Justine (Garance Marillier), following her family’s shared trajectory — all are veterinarians and vegetarians — only feels natural. But when she shows up for her first year at vet school, Justine is quietly shocked by the extent of the hazing rituals her freshman class is subjected to.
Crawling across floors in the dark and dancing all night at a mandatory rager, Justine experiences the savagery of her campus ecosystem. She seems both entranced and repulsed by the prospect of taking her place at the bottom of its pecking order, especially once upper-level students pour buckets of blood over her head.
Justine is even more taken aback when her older sister Alexia (Ella Rumpf) pushes meat on her during one hazing ritual, forcing her to eat a raw rabbit kidney. Later, Justine awakens to discover her skin peeling due to a nasty, flaking rash. Absent-mindedly chewing her hair leads to an equally disgusting outcome, as she coughs up strands of hair like matted ribbons. Soon, Justine’s craving for meat leads her to devour hamburger patties and raw chicken breast. And when Alexia’s efforts to give Justine a painful-looking Brazilian go skin-crawlingly south, a gruesome accident with scissors leads Justine to try human flesh for the first time.
All of this experimentation plays out against the drab, antiseptic confines of the vet school, where students carve open animal carcasses with grim purpose, and body parts float in jars filled with formaldehyde. Justine’s emotional distance when it comes to matters of the flesh might make her a great doctor one day. But as her cravings intensify, it’s not difficult to imagine a darker fate for this quick, hungering study. Marillier is a hypnotic screen presence, and it’s the childlike curiosity and gnawing absence in her gaze — though, of what, we’re not quite sure — that makes Justine such an endlessly surprising and unsettling protagonist.
Equally pivotal to Justine’s transformation — tracked with intense focus and vicious gallows humor by Ducournau, who also wrote the script — is the dreamlike atmosphere of the institution around her. Even in this debut feature, the filmmaker has a preternatural knack for knowing where to place her camera that can make the mundane instantly mesmerizing. Its erotic, otherworldly tableaux contrasting with the cold, oddly unempathetic nature of its academia, the school becomes an unreal, womblike space — all the better for letting Justine be reborn.
Slathered in blue paint, Justine ends up in a bathroom with a male student doused in yellow. Pressed together, they make green, and the way Ducournau shoots their limbs sliding achieves the surreal sense of bodies merging in forced, ungainly unison. As students descend a stairwell, their placement within its concrete angles suggests blood pumping through aortic chambers in the heart of some terrible beast. Perhaps they are. Surrounded by farm-animal carcasses and surrendering to their base impulses, students in this surreal animal kingdom of campus have embraced a more primal side, which encourages Justine to unleash her own.
Through the filmmaker’s collaboration with cinematographer Ruben Impens, Raw becomes a feast for the eyes as well. Suppose this cannibalistic coming-of-age story often feels like a nouveau art piece. That’s because it’s alive with moments of splatter poetry, relating Justine’s transformation on a vivid, expressionistic level, with the simple image of a white lab coat stained with dark-red blood as its skeleton key.
Raw is also marvelously entertaining, partly because Ducournau tells her story with such confidence and partly because she orchestrates it with a vibrant pop aesthetic that makes the graphic third act feel all the more cathartic, disturbing, and erotic. Jim Williams’ throbbing-then-thrashing electronic score — which recalls Disasterpiece’s forcefully discordant It Follows score, though it’s more subtly interior — was a breakthrough moment for the composer, who’s since scored Brandon Cronenberg’s Possessor and Ducornau’s Titane.
Speaking of which: Titane — with its howling maelstrom of bone-crunching brawls, dark-dripping fluids, and bodily modification — feels like a real escalation from Raw in every sense. Its protagonist dances on cars, falls pregnant after an inexplicable bout of coitus carrus, goes on a murder spree, then steals the identity of a missing boy. If David Cronenberg and Jane Campion designed a theme-park ride then slashed its seatbelts, the resulting mess of flesh, metal, and allegory might look something like Titane.
But the new film shares with Raw the sense of a fractured fairy tale and a glacial, bizarro elegance that transposes the character’s sublimated emotions onto the setting with splashes of heated, viscid color. Does embracing one’s true self require the consumption of another? Is self-destruction too insular a way of understanding our bodies in a world that affirms our physicality by threatening it daily? When civilization runs on animal instinct, is survival a matter of predation?
Like the best films of the New French Extremity, Ducournau’s Raw is transgressive in posing such complicated questions, and it’s graphic about serving up answers. The film is, philosophically speaking, an indulgent four-course meal — don’t be surprised if it gets stuck in your teeth.
Raw is now streaming on Netflix.