It is said we are living in the age of anxiety. Everything, from our political situation to our technology, seems to be designed to invoke anxiety's trademark feeling of nonspecific fear. The great existential threat of our time, global warming, is everywhere and nowhere. Late stage capitalism pits us against each other and threatens to take away our jobs and security suddenly, and for no discernible reason. Our technology used to be hailed as the source of our impending liberation, but now our smartphones constantly beep and buzz for attention, and the apps that are supposed to be fun are designed to maximize addictiveness by producing artificial anxiety and doling out relief one tweet at a time.
The recent art-horror movement has proven adept at taking the zeitgeist's nameless dread and transforming it into cathartic film experiences. Raw is not so much a horror movie as it is an anxiety movie. Fear of rejection is always a reliable producer of tension, producing the increasingly popular sub-genre, social anxiety. When we first meet Justine (Garance Marillier), she's charging headlong into one of the most socially anxious situations imaginable: first day at a new school, in this case, a prestigious, French veterinary college. Turns out, it's something of a family tradition. Her mother (Joana Preiss) and father (Laurent Lucas) both went to the same school, and her sister, Alexia (Ella Rumpf), is a couple of years ahead of her in the program.
Justine is a star pupil and apparently perfectly suited for life as a veterinarian. Like her mother, she's a very strict and doctrinaire ethical vegetarian. But that doesn't make adjusting to her new life away from home any easier. Even worse, incoming first year students in the school are traditionally subjected to some pretty out-there hazing rituals. The first night there, the upperclassmen go wilding through the freshman dorms, trashing their rooms, throwing their mattresses in a pile on the quad outside, and lining them up for a late night trip to an uncertain destination.
We see the hazing from Justine's point of view, with Steadicam shots swirling through the disorienting crowd of nervous students. But the difficult initiation does make a certain kind of sense: These people are going to spend their professional lives up close and personal with the innards of a wide variety of animals, so drenching the first-year students in blood before taking the class picture is one way to dull their disgust reflex. And it's also sometimes fun for the pledges. After a supremely creepy sequence where the blindfolded Justine is forced to crawl through the school's underground passages, she emerges into a giant, underwear-only dance party. French vets, apparently, really know how to get down.
But maybe Justine's sense of disgust gets dulled just a little too much. One of the initiation rituals is to eat a raw bit of sheep's kidney, followed by a shot of vodka. Justine protests. She's been a good sport so far, but she's a vegetarian. Alexia intervenes, forcing her to gag down the gross morsel. Then things start to change for Justine. She develops a rash, then a very out-of-character craving for meat — the more raw, the better. Finally, in a hair-raising scene between Justine and Alexia, our protagonist gets a taste of human flesh, and it's all downhill from there.
I read recently that vets, as a profession, have a very high incidence of suicide. No one seems to know why that is, but a veterinary school turns out to be the perfect place to set a movie about a reluctant cannibal. When you're a teenager just beginning to get a good look at the world, it can seem like everyone is doing horrible things but acting like it's just normal. When Justine searches for her sister to talk about her emerging cannibalistic impulses, she finds Alexia elbow-deep in a cow. It's the little details like that which elevates Raw into a slick, better-than-average horror experience.
There are very few horror films directed by women, but the ones that are, such as Mary Harron's classic American Psycho, tend to come at the genre from unusual and enlightening angles. Director Julia Ducournau has crafted the first horror film (to my knowledge) to take on eating disorders as a theme. Justine's cravings begin in a time of stress and judgment, and she vacillates between unmanageable impulses and secret shame. Raw is a new classic of gross-out horror, but it's also a finely tuned psychological piece about a disorder that affects millions of women.