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RAW (18)

Director: Julia Ducournau

Screenplay: Julia Ducournau 

Starring: Garance MarillierElla RumpfRabah Nait Oufella

Review: David Stephens

Perhaps one of the oddest sub-genres in horror is that of the cannibal film. Growing naturally out of the “Mondo” movies of the 60’s/70’s, they were inspired by those exploitative documentaries, which cynically attempted to push the buttons of film-watchers by depicting (mostly faked) sequences of the natural and “uncivilized” world. The pinnacle of those early terror flicks was probably “Cannibal Holocaust” which became notoriously banned in many countries and was the flagship title for the “Video Nasty” witch-hunt in 80’s Britain. These days it’s a much more sophisticated and intelligent subject for horror, with recent titles like “We Are What We Are” and (of course) “Hannibal” showing that not all human-flesh-eating folk are necessarily savage “bad guys” (although most are). This particular French tale of tasty taboo titbits comes to us from writer/director Julia Ducournau, and has picked up some glowing reviews around the globe. In essence it’s a woman’s coming of age story, but with a bit more (literal) meat to it. It’s now available on DVD/VOD in the UK, so YGROY grabs a toothpick and a bottle of ketchup before watching it…

It begins with an ominous prologue, where a figure throws itself into the path of a speeding car on a lonely stretch of road. Then we meet Justine (a very impressive Garance Marillier), a teenager en-route to Veterinary school with her parents. A life-long vegetarian, her mother strictly encourages her to avoid all meat. Once at the school, she meets up with her wayward older sister Alexia (Ella Rumpf) and starts her studies. But like all the other “rookies”, she’s subjected to the cruel hazing rituals that the senior students put them through as part of “rush-week”. During these shenanigans, she is forced (mostly by her sister) to chow down on raw rabbit kidney to pass initiation. After she does this Justine comes out in a severe rash and has strange sensations and urges. It seems that’s she’s got more serious problems to worry about on top of all the trauma of becoming a young woman, and those around her had better be careful…

At regular intervals we get treated to click-bait articles from the media at film festivals, regaling us with dubious stories about unsuspecting audience members barfing or fainting at the extreme content of some movies. “Raw” was one of the more recent examples of that, with two cinemagoers allegedly passing out during a screen at the Toronto Film Festival last year. Suffice to say, most genre fans won’t be that troubled by the content here, but they will appreciate this classy Gallic twist on the transition to adulthood.

One little observation before we get into the juicy stuff. This film is a non-advertisement for the French education system (at least for vets). Because if you thought freshmen in the US universities had a tough time with hazing and bullying jocks … you ain’t seen nothing yet. Expected school initiation in this place borders on socially accepted terrorism! Property thrown out of windows, crawling in the dirt, made to wear nappies, forced to take exams in blood-drenched clothes, stripped and covered in paint … it just falls short of water-boarding. Is it really like that? Sheesh!

Be that as it may … this is a very clever and classy coming-of-age story, with some occasionally queasy moments (not as many as you might think though) and the odd bit of gallows humour. The film does have a somewhat gender agenda, with the narrative primarily concerned with the tribulations and expectations piled upon young women in France (and most countries). The allegory between the temptations of cannibalism, with that of sexuality and personal desires, is easy to pick out. But it also subtly broaches the subjects of self-harm, domestic abuse, and body-shaming. Not to mention the very real modern dangers of mass peer pressure and revenge porn.

If all that sounds a bit heavy, the film does look beautiful in places with a hugely eclectic choice of colour. Apart from the obvious use of red (the bloody scenes, and a stroll down a red corridor straight out of “Suspiria”), there’s that gorgeous natural light that seems to infuse a lot of French cinema, and the clever use of clashing palettes in a sequence involving paint.

More than anything else though, this is Marillier’s film, and she owns it. She goes from a timid waif of a girl, to a confident and aggressive woman at certain moments in the story. The pivotal scene where she is tempted by a “snack” in her sister’s room and gives into her hunger is a marvellous moment. It mixes queasy horror with an almost joyous realisation of her innermost desires, and she captures the moment perfectly. Throughout the story, the focus is on Justine and how she will deal with her unusual passage into being an adult and accepting her true nature. By the end, due to Marillier’s performance, you completely understand how she feels and what choices she has made, as difficult as they are. It’s a nice study in coming-of-age, and on the surface it does mirror films like “Ginger Snaps” and “When Animals Dream”. But it has that certain French flair and unusual emphasis on the taboo subject to make it stand out.

The subject of sibling rivalry is handled in a nice fashion, with Rumpf making a good foil for Marillier in a complicated role, and raising the notion that sometimes “sisterhood” ain’t always a positive thing. The odd bit of gallows humour is unexpectedly thrown in as well; with a character going to bite a fingernail before quickly realising the finger is missing, and the great line “You taste like curry”.

However “Raw” (known as “Grave” in its own country BTW), is one of those films where the reputation it’s garnered may hurt it. The “fainting” story is undeserved (anybody that’s sat through the excesses of the “Hannibal” series and film will be entirely unphased by this), as there are some disturbingly queasy scenes, but they mostly work on a gut level as oppose to gross-out effects. The rush of 5-star and 4-star reviews may also be too much to live up to (although we’re personally going for a 4-star rating), as much of the running time is given over to character development and themes, rather than being a ferocious exercise in terror that some may be expecting.

All in all though, this is pleasingly mature horror with a heart, albeit not quite as extreme as its reputation. There are some good visual images (Justine assaulted under a bed-sheet, the climactic moments), a great bit of acting from the lead actress, a chilling (if not entirely unexpected) denouement, and plenty of things to say about the human (mostly female) condition. Well worth checking out, for those genre fans after something more satisfying and filling than a light snack … Chew before you swallow though…

DVD Extras: No entrées. Only some film trailers.

“Raw” is a pleasingly effective take on a coming-of-age story, which greatly benefits from the Gallic overtones and a superb central performance from Marillier. It takes some well-worn themes and applies them to a narrative which sometimes disturbs, but is also fascinating. It might not reach the heights of excellence and gore that some may expect, but it is a finely carved piece of genre that’s well worth tasting.
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