Raw is one of my favourite films of the year so far.
I don’t have a clue what it’s about.
Raw is the heartwarming tale of Justine (Garance Marillier), a young French woman raised vegetarian, who heads off to study veterinary medicine at the college where her parents met and her sister Alex (Ella Rumpf) is already an upperclassman. During an elaborate hazing ritual for new students, her sister forces her to eat a rabbit kidney and Justine develops a craving for raw meat, specifically the flesh of humans.
Raw is hard to watch at times – much harder than I expected as someone who loves horror films in general, the Saw series in particular, and who was exposed as a teenager to repeated viewings of Hostel, a movie that features a man trying to walk on severed Achilles’ tendons, and The Devil’s Rejects, a movie I only remember as blood and organs smeared across tarmac. I watched a lot of Raw through my fingers, but I never looked away – it’s a gorgeous film to watch. I suspect a better critic could spin thousands of words out of Raw’s lighting and colour balance alone, how the greys of its outdoor scenes make everything seem immediately post-apocalyptic even as the rich play of shadow and light on Garance Millier’s face gives Justine the eerie visual texture of something alive, horrifically and viscerally alive, in a dead world.
But I can’t. As I mentioned earlier, I have no idea what Raw is about.
I know Raw is about something, not least of all because it’s a horror film and no genre is more burdened by political subtext than horror, whether it wants to be or not. The People Under the Stairs is a fairly overt satire of the Reagan presidency, while Sinister is a horror story of parenthood and the inevitable replacement of each generation by their children. The Blair Witch Project is about the human mind and its capacity to destroy itself. Get Out is a deliberate inversion of traditional racial horror narratives that replaces cross-burning hicks with affluent milquetoast liberals. Alien is about sexual violence, Insidious is about childhood trauma, Carrie is about bullying and abuse. Even horror films with no obvious agenda – maybe with no intentional agenda at all – end up with one just by virtue of expecting us to fear something at all.
When I watched Raw, it was clear to me that lots of ordinary experiences of college life were being cast in a horrific light – the party culture, peer pressure and hazing – but I still left the cinema with a question I can’t answer and that I know I must answer to the bare minimum of my own satisfaction before I can even pretend to know what Raw is about.
What’s the deal with the cannibalism?
I thought at first it might be a metaphor for sexuality, but while Justine’s sexuality is intertwined with her cannibalism throughout the film, it’s obvious the two are distinct. Raw is too disgusted by how the soft violence of peer pressure imposes unwanted sexual attention and activity on Justine to identify her sexuality with her violent cannibalism – even though she indulges each of them more as she indulges the other. I considered for a brief moment that Raw might be about vegetarianism, but if there’s one thing I learned from my English lecturer who thought almost everything was about vegetarianism, it’s that almost nothing is about vegetarianism. My usual bugbear of capitalism was no help. I wondered if Raw used cannibalism as an unstable or multivalent metaphor that signifies different things at different times, but it’s too single-minded in its use. Maybe it’s about addiction? I don’t know, but I think I could figure it out if I could just crack one scene that’s been stuck in my head ever since I saw it.
Early in the film, Justine is taken aside by one of her lecturers and asked if she’s let anyone cheat off her work. The scene drags out Justine’s hesitation, but she eventually rats out her roommate Adrien. Nothing ever comes of it, and I’ve never seen it mentioned in any reviews, but it’s a scene that sticks with me because it’s so long and tense and purposeful that I know it’s not filler or dead air. I’m sure it tells us something very important about Justine. I just don’t know what. I believe in my heart of hearts that scene is the key to making some sense of Raw. But I’ve yet to unlock the key itself, and it might not be the key anyway. I thought it was a clever visual pun that the film used a college campus with Brutalist architecture, because Brutalism derives its name from the French “béton brut”, or raw concrete. But the film’s name in French is Grave, which one review informs me “has multiple meanings in English depending on context: serious, deep, solemn, nuts, and, more colloquially, ‘totes’.” Unless director Julia Ducournau planned from very early in the creative process to release her film under a completely unrelated name in English, it seems like coincidence.
I just know there’s more to Raw than I understand. There are lots of great films with nothing to say about the world – The Maltese Falcon, Yojimbo, Sherlock Jr – but Raw is a great film with something to say that I just can’t wrap my head around.
Why did I write about a film I don’t understand?
Partly it’s to exorcise the demon a little and spill its blood on the page, but it’s also an opportunity to say that it’s okay to not understand every work of art you experience. I still enjoyed Raw – I loved it – and it doesn’t necessarily diminish the experience of Raw that I can’t make it bow to my mighty intellect. I see a lot of critics try to obscure the fact that a film or show escapes their understanding with platitudes about how some art is best when you just sit back and let it wash over you, when you just experience it, but that’s horseshit. I refuse to believe it diminishes the experience of challenging art to be engaged and curious about what it wants to say – what diminishes it is when we think we’re engaged and curious but we’re actually just churning it up into raw material for a hot take. We shouldn’t hide the fact that sometimes art confounds us in brief asides, we should be upfront about it and confront it and embrace it. The fact that art can sometimes be beyond our comprehension is one of the clearest proofs of its transcendent power, and a reminder of the divine spark that lives in all of us.
I didn’t understand Raw and that’s okay. I’m not going to tell you Raw is “the kind of film you don’t really think about, you just experience” or whatever just because it was beyond me. I’m not going to punish Raw by saying it’s bad because I didn’t get it, even though its intelligence and purposefulness are inscribed on every frame. Raw is an excellent film and I highly recommend it if you think you can stomach it. Just maybe not over dinner.