A Film a Week - Raw / Grave

People vomiting. People fainting. People leaving the theatre, not being able to handle the film. At the festival, of all places. For a horror film genre niche, that is a kind of advertisement and it usually implies either excessive gore (what would be more excessive regarding gore in the time of ISIS videos floating freely on the internet, it is hard to tell) or taking on a taboo. More often than not, a film cannot rise to the standards of the hype it is creating, but Raw is not just another unimaginative, lazy and underwhelming genre piece. On the contrary, it is a rare gem: a completely successful parable of coming of age and sexual awakening of its female protagonist through nothing less shocking than cannibalism.

Justine (played by a relatively unknown Garance Marillier) comes from a family of militant vegetarians and is about to start her studies at the prestigious vet school in French countryside, which is also a family tradition. It is her first week at the college and she is about to be exposed to brutal, military-style hazing rituals that include driving the freshmen to an abandoned school facility, a mandatory practice of addressing senior students as “elders” or “the great ones”, to obey their commands and allow to be covered in blood and paint. Although Justine’s sister Alexia (Swiss actress Ella Rumpf) is an “elder”, a campus goth, sex goddess and an “alpha”, but even she cannot or would not save her from the initiation ritual: eating a raw rabbit kidney.

A strong allergic reaction is just a start of Justine’s trouble. Tasting the raw meat will leave her craving for more, and just plain chicken will not cut the deal. Nobody is safe, not even her gay roommate Adrien (Rabah Nait Outfella). In her fantasy, he is attractive enough to turn into a juicy steak.

The opening scene of a traffic accident shot from afar in the way that leaves us uncertain who is to blame, is starting to make sense now, and the relationship between sisters is kind of mentor-like but not idyllic as it would be expected. Contrary to the vamp Alexia, virginal Justine is not handling that well the change of her body and psyche. Be prepared for a stream of nasty little details like bikini waxing gone wrong, fingers cut off, bloody bites and self-mutilation. Just to be sure where we are, animals do not fare that well either, so there will be dead dogs, constipated cows and horses operated by somewhat primitive instruments.

Aided by the cinematographer Ruben Impens whose unpleasant close-ups are altering with static, beautifully composed wide takes in cold bluish palette, aided by Ben Wheatley’s composer Jim Williams inspiring score and music choices, and her perfectly casted acting ensemble (with the army of extras), Julia Ducournau pays attention to every detail in this deliberately paced, perfectly rhythmic and very intense multi-layered film. Clearly, it is all about female sexual awakening and carnal pleasures, but also there is an angle about family, school and medicine not being able to understand nor to explain the mysteries of a body in the changing process. There is a lot of sex and meat to devour, there are brutality and sibling rivalry, but the humour is no less important : one of the most memorable scenes includes a pissing contest between the sisters. Ducournau never loses control until the clean-cut ending.

Julia Ducournau is a first-timer which almost comes as a surprise after having watched the film. Of course, Raw is so frank, raw and insightful about a woman’s body and mind that it seems logical it was made by a female director. But the level of skill, the scope of perspective, the number of layers and juggling with all of them would rarely fit the description of a young, first-time director. Ducournau takes her clues from the masters, so we can see the echoes of Polanski’s Repulsion, Zulawski’s psychology of characters, De Palma’s obsession with female adolescence and repressions (Carrie, aswell as Sisters) and Cronenberg’s body horror taken to another level of gore, but she remains true to herself, original and fresh. Raw has all the indications that we can expect big from Julia Ducournau.

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