in

Raw: Pushing the Boundaries of Acceptable Violence on Film

Our perception of violence on-screen is ever-changing.

Justine, Raw's focal character

Raw is a French film directed by Julia Ducournau, which was released in 2016. It follows the life of Justine (Garance Marillier) and her sister Alexia (Ella Rumpf). Raw won the FIPRESCI prize at the Cannes Film Festival during the year of its release. It also won several awards at film festivals across Europe. Raw has a staggering 91% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and is now highly regarded in the horror community. It tells the story of Justine and her first year of medical school.

Justine has just moved away from home for the first time in order to attend college. She is studying veterinary medicine, a course that her sister is already taking. Her sister is older than her and already settled in at the campus. The film starts off fairly normally—aside from a chaotic scene at the very beginning depicting a car accident. Justine starts her course, moves into her accommodation, and parties with the other students. She seems like a pretty normal girl. Her ambitions are strong, she is slightly timid, and appears friendly enough to her new roommate. However, after a hazing ritual, something dark is awakened in her.

Justine during her hazing with blood on her face and body
Justine during her hazing, Raw

Violence on film is something that has always been explored, and the boundaries are constantly shifting and being pushed by bold directors. Famous examples of extreme violence on film include the rape scenes in A Clockwork Orange (1971) and Irreversible (2002), and the depictions of physical and psychological torture in the Saw franchise films. All of these were considered as very taboo at the time of their release—and indeed even now in some circles. But despite the existing pushed boundaries, Raw was going to do violence differently.

After Justine, who has always been vegetarian, is coated in animal blood and pressured into eating raw rabbit kidneys as part of her initiation into the college, it is revealed to us that she enjoys the taste of raw meat. Initially, she had refused to take part in the challenge, but Alexia forces a kidney into her mouth before walking away. In the following scenes, it appears that the hazing has awakened something in Justine that she can’t ignore. She begins to develop cravings for meat, despite her lifelong vegetarian stance. We watch her changing her lifestyle to eat meat—including meat out of the fridge that is still raw. Her demeanor throughout these scenes could only be described as desperate and greedy; she devours the raw flesh. We begin to realize that she may also have cannibalistic inclinations when her sister Alexia suffers an injury.

This finally comes to a head as Alexia is attempting to help her do a DIY bikini wax. There is an accident with the scissors Alexia is using to cut the wax out of her hair after some of the wax gets stuck. Alexia’s finger is severed and she passes out—either from shock or from blood loss. Justine’s reaction is initially a lot of concern for her sister, but also one of excitement at this opportunity, as she sees it. The scene progresses until we watch Justine begin to eat Alexia’s finger. 

Justine after eating part of her sister's finger
Justine after eating part of her sister’s finger, Raw

Once Alexia comes to, she is faced with the horrifying sight of her sister happily chewing away on her lost finger. From her reaction, we assume that she already knew about Justine’s obsession with raw meat and cannibalism, and perhaps suffered in a similar way herself. This is the point at which the audience is left to wonder if it is an accident that the two girls were raised vegetarian their entire life.

The next day, the two sisters go on a trip and Alexia deliberately causes a car crash in order to eat one of the victims from inside the other car. Justine is horrified by this. As a viewer, I found this scene particularly distressing, perhaps even more so than the initial severed finger scene. Ducournau must have realized the effect this would have on audiences. The premise of the film is already incredibly disturbing, and the gore and implied gore of this scene is vast. Alexia seems more alive than she ever has before in the midst of her cannibalistic binge, while Justine’s craving for human flesh also seems to be growing. It becomes obvious that she wants to eat her roommate, Adrien (Rabah Nait Oufella).

Alexia with blood around her mouth
Alexia with blood around her mouth, Raw

The situation escalated between Justine and Adrien, despite his initial insistence that he was not interested in women. The pair become sexually involved, but Adrien becomes disturbed when, as he defends himself from her attempts to bite him, Justine bites into her own arm and begins to eat her own flesh. Because Adrien has, more or less, protected himself from Justine, she begins to crave human flesh even more. Her interest in Adrien seems to spread to Alexia too, who is still desperate to continue pleasing her cannibal nature. A few days later, Alexia kills Adrien.

Alexia is imprisoned for his murder, and Justine drops out of school and returns home to live with the girls’ father. It is only now that he chooses to explain to her why she and Alexia were raised to be vegetarians. He exposes his chest to show chunks missing and mass scarring, where her mother had been slowly eating him over the course of their relationship. He reassures Justine that it is not her fault she is so inclined towards human flesh, and that her mother passed this on to her and is, therefore, the cause. Both Justine and her father seem to accept Alexia was the product of misfortune, as opposed to a cold-hearted murderer.

Justine's father reveals the scarring on his chest
Justine’s father reveals the scarring on his chest, Raw

After everything you have already been through once you get to this point in the film, this is strange, but it almost feels like the most upsetting scene. Seeing the love that Justine’s father had for her mother despite the cravings she had for human flesh takes away some of the disgust you feel as a viewer, and replaces it with sadness. Now, of course, there is still plenty of disgust to go around, but also now some humanity in the two girls.

Ducournau’s depiction of cannibalism in this way is bold and refreshing. Is this the first time we have seen cannibalism on screen? No, of course not. We have The Walking Dead (2010- present), The Santa Clarita Diet (2017-2019), and Devil Hunter (1980, and banned in the UK shortly after). But the extent of the animalistic, fear-inducing, blood-curdling visuals and audio are still enough to shock even the most hardened horror viewer. What’s more, almost none of the violent acts are implied but not shown. Every time—barring when Alexia kills Adrien—the gristly acts are shown in all their glory (or gory, if you will). This is uncommon, with most films choosing to depict much of their violence through rapidly moving camera shots and clever editing tricks to detract slightly from the violent focus of a scene. We see this a lot in films such as Secret Window (2004), and even many scenes in Silence of the Lambs (1991) are just about off-screen. Yes, they are violent, but they don’t leave so many violent images in our heads because they were either fleeting or implied. While some films do focus on their violent aspects unflinchingly—A Clockwork Orange and Ichi The Killer (2001) to name just twoit is not something we see all the time.

Raw is so different, not only because of the unflinching camera shots of the violence occurring but also because the actual violent acts are cannibalistic. Ducournau wants us to squirm. In addition to being very in-focus, she doesn’t rush the violent scenes. Cannibalism also makes for a very fresh take considering the kinds of violence we are very used to seeing. In some ways, many of us are almost immune to certain violence on-screen—gunfights, bar brawls, even stabbings—but I would hazard that many of us are yet to be desensitized to cannibalism. This is not something that we see very often. In fact, we have never seen cannibalism shown in such a graphic, sadistic, and lingering way. The brazen shots of Justine and Alexia eating people, including dead people, are truly stomach-churning; in fact, at one screening of Raw an audience member is reported to have fainted due to what they were watching, and this was not the only anecdotal report of its kind.

Certainly, now the boundaries of what violence is acceptable to show on screen are being wider than they have ever been. Directors like Quentin Tarantino, James Wan, and Gaspar Noe, all notorious for scenes of violence, are standing out less and less for their actual depictions of heinous acts. While they will always be some of the original pillars of horror on film, there is something much more accepting of new and terrifying content about viewers of today. The new type of horror that we are seeing, and indeed that directors like Ducournau are so keen to show, has no boundaries as far as I can see.

A good question, then, is where can horror go next? With scenes of gore and terror becoming increasingly common and accepted, it is easy to think that at some point there will be nowhere left to go. I don’t believe that this is the case. With ever-changing boundaries about what is and is not acceptable, there will always be themes and depictions that only the bold will be willing to tackle. Directors are always going to find new ways to disgust, frighten, and horrify us. The future of horror is going to be enriched by the breaking of boundaries that we see today, and there will undoubtedly be films of the future that shock us more than ever before.

A stuffed Japanese doll on wooden stick

Tomino’s Hell: The Cursed Poem Not Meant to Be Read Out Loud

The Seafood Monster Attack Team (SMAT) poses in their blue jumpsuit uniforms.

Fantasia 2020: Monster Seafood Wars Serves Up a Platter of Awesome