Title: Raw (2016)
Director: Julia Ducournau
Stars: Garance Marillier, Ella Rumpf, Rabah Naït Oufella
Bias: I am only a very casual horror fan, so some of Raw’s generic reference points may be lost on me. But the film has a lot of elements I tend to go for, such as its general artsiness.
In a Nutshell: Raised in a family of vegetarian veterinarians, 16-year-old Justine (Garance Miller) is about to embark on her own veterinary training at a school where her older sister, Alexia (Ella Rumpf), is already an upperclassman (or the French equivalent). At school, Justine immediately encounters strange hazing rituals—new students are forcibly roused from their dorm rooms and ushered to a kind of rave in a school basement; they are made to do a crab walk en masse; eventually, they are forced to eat raw rabbit kidney. After Justine performs the latter task (violating her lifelong vegetarianism and her ideals), she finds herself craving raw meat—some of it human—and exploring other new bodily pleasures.
The Critique: Writer-director Julia Ducournau has called Raw a “crossover movie… between comedy, drama and body horror,” and the film works deftly in each genre: what many reviews describe as the film’s coming-of-age narrative is at times poignant; its jokes are clever; its brand of cannibal movie/body horror is visceral but also, well, erm, palatable (this is decidedly not torture porn).
Raw is especially strong in its exploration of power dynamics. For one, with the veterinary profession and issues of vegetarianism/various kinds of meat-eating at the fore, the film becomes something of a meditation on the animal nature of humanity and the power dynamics between species. But much of the horror—and poignancy—in the film comes from the dynamics between people, particularly between sisters Justine and Alexia. Raw may call to mind artsy relationship-thrillers like Ingmar Bergman’s Persona (1965) and David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive (2001) for the ways it deploys their dynamic to explore issues of power, identity and transformation.
Another strength: The film left me puzzling over the ways Justine’s cannibalism might comment on horror tropes of feminized otherness, or what film scholar Barbara Creed has termed the “monstrous-feminine.” I’m still not sure where I think Raw stands as a feminist text (which is not to say that a film needs to have a feminist or otherwise ideological “intent” in order for it to be “good”), but I think that my puzzling is a positive, and I almost want to give the film an A grade.
I’m giving it an A-, however, because it’s worth importing a critique raised by Jeffrey Bloomer in Slate. Bloomer makes the case that Justine’s roommate, Adrien (Rabah Naït Oufella), who is gay and Muslim, becomes a “cheap plot vessel.” Raw is fundamentally invested in issues of identity, but Adrien’s arc suggests that the identities the narrative ultimately invests in are, like the protagonist, white, affluent, apparently straight, and (but-for-the-cannibalism) mainstream.
Still, there are many other things to recommend this debut feature, and I’m looking forward to more work from Ducournau.
Choice Quote: “An animal that has tasted human flesh isn’t safe.”
Shout-outs: Jim William’s score does much of the heavy lifting in terms of straddling the lines between genres. Ruben Impens’ cinematography is also all-around gorgeous; shots involving non-human animals (alive or dead) are especially painterly.
To Go, to Rent, or to Netflix: Unless you really can’t stand gore (or French films), see it in theaters; noting where the rest of the audience laughs, squirms, or does neither brings some added value to the experience.
Photo Credit: Petit Film & Rouge International