Bloody good, “Raw” (Grave) is a gorgeously measured, viscous, rubicund, pulsating female-body horror debut feature from French writer-director Julia Ducournau. Comparisons are heady but unnecessary: her idea-rich feral fable taxonomizes its own distinctly female language. It’s coming-of-age time with dark variations in the bloodline and the bloodstream: sixteen-year-old Justine (Garance Marillier) leaves a resolutely vegetarian household to join her older sister Alexia (Ella Rumpf) at the veterinary college that both her parents attended. Accept the premise: the rabbit hole opens with velocity. The university has a tradition of a blood-drench hazing, which includes meat-free Justine served, like all the new students, a shot and a raw rabbit kidney. She says no, but Alexia is there to make certain she chokes it down. Disorientation follows, including bloodspots and welts rising on her skin, which a kindly female doctor dismisses with an anecdote about body shaming.
Ducournau’s widescreen images flatter and tease. The look is muted neon realism, seductive Euro-luster. But it’s Marillier’s open-eyed performance that seduces. The moment when Justine discovers, when she anticipates, when she cannot but…Yeah. And when her sister… Oui. There are fine reasons that Justine shares a name with a De Sade heroine. When her gay roommate asks her, “I want to know if you’re on an S&M trip, or if it’s more grave than that,” she leaves, but quickly returns to confess, “It’s grave.” Secrets shared, the pair can now share. “An animal that has tasted human flesh isn’t safe.”
But secrets, and the failure of others to be open, lead to further carnal catastrophe, other stains in the blood. Silken metaphors and fierce sexual passion jolt Justine’s journey. Dancing by herself before a mirror to a rap song with a woman singing, “Wedding night, I’ll drown you in my pool,” she immolates herself in lipstick and lips and smeared lipstick, self-love, self-admiration, self-cannibalizing. Justine discovers herself. And what she wants. And once she’s drunk, she will have it. She will have you, brave and foolhardy, riding her wellspring of insatiable physical desire. “I call intoxication of the mind that state in which pleasure exceeds the possibilities which desire had entertained,” Roland Barthes cites in “A Lover’s Discourse,” and it’s suitable to describe where desire takes Justine. “Raw”’s errant psychology is apt, acts and reactions escalate with finely-stitched logic, and, as in the best work of David Cronenberg, we simultaneously witness ruin and flowering transformation.
“Raw” opens Friday, March 17 at the Music Box.
Ray Pride is Newcity’s film critic and a contributing editor to Filmmaker magazine.
His multimedia history of Chicago “Ghost Signs” will be published later this year.