Whatever you do, don’t enroll in this college.
If you’ve ever wondered what happened to Niedermeyer and the other sadistic bastards from the Omega fraternity, ignore the tags at the end of Animal House – they must be running the orientation week at this remote school for veterinary science, based on the insane hazing going on. In the film Raw, the Fresher’s Week of this prestigious but poorly supervised madhouse is endured by quiet, brainy, and most importantly strictly vegetarian student Justine. Bad things ensue, much worse than frathouse paddling.
No spoiler to say Justine is going to acquire a taste for blood; the title here does not refer to carrot sticks.
Flesh is the new black?
After recapping the first season of Netflix’s Santa Clarita Diet and really getting fed up with meat gags, both comical and physical, and illusions regarding flesh, eating and how it all comes back to sex, I am burnt out on cannibalism, a sentence I never thought I’d write. I was surprised, therefore, at how invested I became in Justine’s story. This ain’t your mama’s coming of age-cannibal-family-horror adventure. The shocks delivered here are character-driven and the grossouts have additional impact because, with her innocently wary eyes and gawky way, Garance Marillier’s lead character is intriguing. This film is a step off of the usual gorefest (caveat: Garon and my fellow writers here at PCB are the horror/thriller experts, so what do I know?), perhaps because the creator is female, is French, or is a first time feature writer-director with so many financiers in this Franco/Belgian coproduction that maybe she was able to just play them all and do exactly what she wanted. Julia Ducournau sure knows what she is doing, and also how to hire both a good makeup artist (effects makeup done by Olivier Afonso) and a cinematographer (Ruben Impens) who puts you right into claustrophobic scenes and gives distance when needed. Her third time collaboration (after a short and a French tv movie) with the steely but vulnerable teenager Marillier yields results.
The vast majority of the action takes place at this weird school – what Europeans call college, so 16-19 year olds – that not only her rebellious older sister Alexia (Ella Rumpf) attends, but that is the alma mater of her parents. So like the Barrymores or the Mannings, the whole family is in the same field, though here cow insemination subs in for football or substance abuse.
Garance Marillier, looking like a combo of Scarlett Johansson and Mia Sara circa Ferris Bueller, makes us fear for Justine’s safety and sanity on this grey, isolated campus with its unmitigated hazing – they take being a vet very seriously here, and really, the asshole third year students might be the best argument ever for giving in to thoughts of violence. We are led to believe the entire film takes place over the first week of school, a fortnight at the most, yet the freshman have a full-on schedule involving advanced dissection, huge tests and almost mandatory partying, the pace never lets up and makes you feel the freshmen’s pain.
Who is Justine and what is she eating?
You get the idea that Justine really just wants to bunker down in her dorm room, attend class along with cool, gay, sexy roommate Adrien (Rabah Nait Oufella) and spend a bit of time reconnecting with her sister. Well, almost. Big-eyed Marillier looks and acts the part of the newbie, reacting to her new world, but there is a something behind those eyes that hints at more. Who is Justine inside? Overachiever? Overprotected? Daddy’s girl? Nerd wanting to break out of her shell, or nerd wanting to harden that shell and stick with animals rather than people? She has no qualms defending her controversial opinion of animal rights and psychology to her classmates (that brief cafeteria scene was a philosophical argument my movie companion and I discussed all the way home), expects to be a top student and knows she has the upper hand at home with parental relations. But she clearly wants to fit in with these nuts. The audience knows a change is coming, and the dread builds.
Our heroine goes from academic wallflower to, well, a very different and quite hungry young lady, in the aforementioned week. Raw throws a lot of worldbuilding at us before the drama begins – one of the important elements is her volatile relationship with occasionally protective, possibly competitive Alexia, as a taste of flesh forced upon her quickly makes Justine into a person no one recognizes. It was great to see how well presented the sibling relationship was, the small annoyances and posturing between the two were well played. The relationship with Adrien, hmm, I’ll say no more…
Review: Raw, not just a horror film
This movie can been enjoyed a few different ways. As horror, it works – I heard gasps in the cinema, and there are many nasty, vivid and original moments, more on that in a sec. As a story that just happens to have horror in it, like Shaun of the Dead or Showgirls, it mostly works. One of the later essential plot turns was confusing to me, and there are interesting background strands that aren’t fully explored. However, if you focus on the film as an (obvious) metaphor for a naïve juvenile becoming a sexually-realized and self-knowing adult, it works. The intensity of being that age, the new complex thoughts and choices presented, the pressure that Justine faces to fit in, flesh-eating aside (though I don’t claim to know how your teen years went), they seem real. You may harken back to how awful it can be to be 17, 18 and you go from being the easy star of a smaller world where people still use the word harken, into a new ecosystem where the rules seem to have changed and you are alone with yourself. This is Justine’s Breakfast Club moment, but instead of making out with Bender and giving away her diamond earring, she is losing her soul.
Raw isn’t perfect. Ducournau’s script crams a lot in, creating this world that dips in and out of realistic reactions to and consequences for surreal actions. In interviews she has cited David Cronenberg’s films as an inspiration, and Cronenberg is a master of tone. Sometimes a good director creates such consistent anxiety and tension that plot slipups almost go by the wayside. I’d say Ducournau ’s confidence and originality has accomplished that. There are moments of humor that are skillfully blended in, and the performances are very good.
Theaters handed out sick bags for Raw screenings?
It has to be repeated here that, apparently, festival screening audiences were fainting, getting nauseous and even walking out, albeit on wobbly legs. Really? I noted before, horror isn’t my thing, I am a bit squeamish and the more real-life the grossout, the more likely I am to start turn away, to worry about unseeing things you can’t unsee. Machete to the head scene, a la Friday the 13th? Okay. Marathon Man’s dental torture or like here in Raw, the prelude to an everyday intimate procedure gone wrong, those are the scenes that have me covering my eyes. And, I’ll admit, plugging my ears; the sound design here is intense as well. Did elite but well-seasoned critics in Cannes and Toronto rush for the smelling salts, or is that just clever PR?
It seems to be working. Box office is good and festival award nominations are piling up. Skip your dinner, get your skin cream (you’ll need it) and find out where you can see Raw: