Wonderfully tense and nauseatingly gruesome, Julia Ducournau's horror-drama is the most unconventional coming-of-age story you'll ever see
Last semester, I was tasked on writing a 10-page paper on the New French Extremity, a movement of French filmmakers in the ’90s and 2000s that focused on pushing the boundaries of all genres, though it was primarily based in the horror genre. Films like “Irreversible,” “Enter the Void,” “High Tension,” “Martyrs” and “Frontier(s)” shocked audiences around the world with their extreme elements of violence, sex and hard drug use, but since the height of the movement in around 2007, it’s died down a bit in recent years, to my utter dismay. While the films are incredibly difficult to watch, I gravitate towards these films a lot for many of their profound social and political themes that go along with the gore. Needless to say, I was pretty stoked when reports of “Raw (Grave)” came through from the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), which two audience members were reported to have passed out during the film. Beyond TIFF, the film also screened at the Gothenburg Film Festival, in which over 30 people walked out, many vomited and two more fainting spells. It was at this point that I knew “Raw” was going to be my type of movie.
Justine (Garance Marillier) is a veterinarian in training starting her schooling at a prestigious Belgian university. Upon arrival, she and her new classmates are subjected to unusually cruel hazing process in which they are belittled, drenched in blood and forced to eat raw animal organs, to the dismay of the vegetarian Justine. After being forced by her older sister, Alexia (Ella Rumpf) to ingest the organs, Justine begins to notice a strange change in her body. At first, Justine takes this as a sign of her body reacting negatively to the organs, but she soon finds herself craving the taste of meat, which soon trickles down to a craving for raw meat, which then trickles into the realm of cannibalism.
First things first, does “Raw” live up to its almost insatiable hype? While the gore isn’t as pervasive as one might expect, I’m still going to say yes. I’m not joking when I say that one two separate occasions, and one more in particular, did I feel physically nauseous enough to have almost excused myself from the film to vomit. You’d think this would be considered a bad thing, but I can’t help view it as quite the opposite. While “Raw” might be an uncomfortably gruesome film, it takes on the wonderful effect that so many of its New French Extremity blood relatives took on: true meaning. What’s so spectacular about “Raw” is how it fashions itself just as much as a coming-of-age story as much as a horror story, focusing on Justine’s lust for meat as a way of propelling her into womanhood, which we learn early on has not happened yet. “Raw” is just as much “Sixteen Candles” as it is “The Silence of the Lambs,” and it works so much better than that combination has any right to.
I’m not sure is Marillier speaks English or not, but if she does, I can guarantee you that she has the complete and utter potential of fashioning herself as a young Marion Cotillard or Juliette Binoche. Oddly off-putting, Marillier owns every scene of “Raw” with an almost frightening sense of calm about her, but when shit goes down, Marillier kicks into full gear and gives one of the more powerful performances seen in a horror film in a long time. Rumpf also delivers quite an effective performance as the outgoing and abrasive Alex. Every time Justine went to Alex for any sort of advice, there was a sort of forbidden energy put out by Rumpf, as if you were hanging out with the cool kids in school who drank alcohol before anyone else did, and the utter lock-up of all your muscles with the uncomfortable nature of their presence. While Marillier owns “Raw,” her chemistry with Rumpf is just a noteworthy as any scene done by herself.
Director Julia Ducournau has crafted quite a ballsy debut for her directorial career, which I am praying is long and illustrious given how well-realized and effective “Raw” is. Ducournau doesn’t try to make “Raw” artful for the sake of being artful, but rather gruesomely terrifying with what she has written and put on screen. There aren’t any visual allegories that clutter “Raw” with too much symbolism like many art-house films have done of late, but Ducournau rather approaches it with a restrained and straightforward hand that is free of all pretense and ego.
“Raw” isn’t terrifying in the typical sense, as there’s no real danger presented to the characters in the film, but rather places the audience in Justine’s shoes, asking the audience what they would do if they randomly began craving human flesh with no real context. The concept of “Raw” from a humanistic standpoint is the most terrifying aspect of the film; its execution only pushes that further.
While “Raw” isn’t a feast for the eyes, it’s an attractive film that uses its Belgian countryside setting to its advantage. The utter grayness of the film matches the grim nature of the film’s plot. Ducournau and DP Ruben Impens craft each scene with just enough shown to balance out the somewhat extreme nature of many of its scenes. Surprisingly, “Raw” doesn’t take every chance to gross out the audience, only holding out the more gruesome scenes for parts of the film where the character of Justine faces something that challenges her humanity, rather than simply supplying gore for the sake of gore. “Raw” is unflinchingly brutal, but it’s not unnecessary.
“Raw” is also topped off by a uniquely heart-pounding score from composer Jim Williams. Mixing the best of scores like “TRON: Legacy” and “Interstellar,” with the pulse-pounding tension that comes from scores like “It Follows,” this film manipulates the audiences emotions further than they expect simply from the music alone. Top that with an effectively catchy soundtrack of diegetic music, and “Raw” is a visual and aural treat.
Simply put, “Raw” is a moviegoing experience like none other. It’s brutal and sometimes incredibly difficult to watch (to the point of physical nausea), but everything in the film has a purpose, instead of simply reveling in excess, which I feel an American filmmaker would’ve done with the film. While “Raw” can still fall under the New French Extremity movement, it’s a much quieter and subtle film than some of the other more in-your-face films that audiences have grown numb to. A big part of “Raw” is how close we get to Justine and how we feel for her as she withstands this horrible ordeal, with the audience squirming in high scenes due to its gore, and low scenes when the psychological aspect of “Raw” is in full swing. Ducournau even finds a way to make the friendliest of scenes feel off-putting and incorrect, making the entire experience of “Raw” from start to finish a sickeningly engaging romp.
Directed by: Julia Ducournau
Starring: Garance Marillier, Ella Rumpf, Rabah Nait Oufella, Laurent Lucas, Joana Preiss, Bouli Lanners.
Runtime: 99 minutes
Rating: R for aberrant behavior, bloody and grisly images, strong sexuality, nudity, language and drug use/partying.
Now playing exclusively at Regal Ballantyne Village 5.
Focus World presents, “Raw (Grave),” a Petit Film, Rouge International, Frakas Productions production, in association with Ezekiel Film Production, Wild Bunch, with the participation of Canal+, Ciné+, Centre National du Cinématographie et de L’image Animée, Tax Shelter du Government Fédéral Belge, Casa Kafka Pictures, Belfius, Wallonie Région Bruxelles-Capitale, Centre National du Cinéma et de L’audiovisuel de la Fédération Wallonie-Bruxelles, an RBTF (Television Belge), VOO/BE TV co-production, with the support of Arte/Cofinova, TorinoFilmLab, Media Program of the European Union, Ciclic Région Centre-Val de Loire, Angoa