I wasn't expecting Raw (2016, directed by Julie Ducournau) to be funny. I mean, French extreme horror movies like Inside or Martyrs are often grim to a point where they cease being entertainments and become endurance tests. Raw is definitely in the tradition of those films, but Raw isn't like that. Don't get me wrong: Raw is a profoundly disturbing and visceral movie, one that isn't shy about employing a gross-out scene here and there. Nor is its splatter of a slapstick variety, a la The Evil Dead. It's a deadly serious movie. And yet there are laughs to be had; some laughs come from actual jokes, some come from the cinematic audacity of the filmmakers. And some of them come from the way the filmmakers take the horror genre's structure and combine it with a contemporary naturalism. The way this is filmed doesn't feel like it's necessarily a horror movie, but the structure of the film, from its alarming first scene to its final whip of the tale, is derived almost entirely from the genre. I suggested to friends that after the final scene unfolds, I wouldn't have been surprised to find the Crypt Keeper sending the audience to the exit with some ghastly bon mot. Writer/director Julie Ducournau, making her first feature, is keenly aware of her traditions. The resulting film is self-aware and funny without being a parody.
Raw follows Justine, a young woman from a strictly vegetarian household, as she embarks on her first year at veterinary school. Her parents are alums of the same school, and her free-spirited sister, Alex, also attends, a year ahead. The vet school has some pretty harsh hazing rituals for its freshmen, and in one such hazing, Justine is obligated to eat a rabbit's kidney. This makes her sick at first. She vomits it up and then develops an alarming rash. But something inside Justine has shifted, and she's suddenly interested in eating meat. Meanwhile, her first semester is going poorly. She's accused of cheating when her roommate, Adrien, copies from her test page, which prompts her professor to unleash a bitter scorn on her for being a bright student for whom things come easy. Her sister is complicit in continuing hazing requirements, many of which keep Justine sleep deprived. And she has the hots for Adrien, even though he's gay (she walks in on him as he's going down on his boyfriend of the moment). All of this on top of challenging school work that has her treating or dissecting a variety of large animals. When a ghastly accident severs one of Alex's fingers, Justine discovers a taste for human flesh, too. She blames the dog for eating the finger, but Alex knows and resents her for it. Alex turns out to be keeping a family secret, and soon she's coaching Justine in the finer points of cannibalism in contemporary France...
Raw is a film that's aware of genre signifiers. It quotes liberally from other horror films, most notably The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Carrie, and Suspiria (its title credits and end credits are pure Argento). To my own sensibilities, this film plays like the mutant love child of May and Trouble Every Day. For all that, its most alarming sequences seem sui generis. Its opening scene, in which a figure throws itself in front of an oncoming car in order to get it to crash into a tree, generates a deep sense of unease. When the filmmakers revisit this scene in close-up and with context, it remains deeply disturbing. The scene where Justine eats her sister's finger is equally alarming in spite of the ghastly comedy that plays out when Alex wakes up and watches her sister do it. Raw is specific in its use of harm to animals, too. It is set in a veterinarian school, and its use of scenes of autopsy, dissection, and animal husbandry is infinitely crueler than notorious animal harm films like Cannibal Holocaust. The fate of Alex's dog for being an innocent bystander to Justine's cannibal awakening, for instance, is targeted at the sensitivities of pet lovers in a way that turns the screws harder than the random shock killings in any given mondo film or Italian cannibal film. The filmmakers know the value of both identifying with the animal(s) first and the politics of its images. This has Georges Franju's "The Blood of the Beasts" in its DNA. And yet, there is still a level of dry comedy in these scenes that makes them endurable. Alex's dog makes an attempt on her finger, so he's not totally innocent. One scene finds Alex talking to Justine while her arm is shoulder-deep up the anus of a horse (presumably to palpate a fetus), which is a scene that's both funny, surprising, and incredibly gross. It's the film's method in microcosm, leavening repulsive scenes with humor.
Raw is a wicked send up of the culture shift when young people first leave home for college or whatnot. This film's college experience is more brutal than most given that Justine's vet school seems actively hostile towards her. One of her teachers even expresses his disdain for gifted students for whom everything comes easy. Certainly, the culture of college life provides a framework for the disasters that befall her. The hazing awakens her appetite, the party life at school provides her with opportunities to fall from great height, her male roommate provides her with an opportunity to explore her new desires. As a setting for this film's coming of age story, it's all of a piece.
It probably goes without saying, but Raw is a movie about flesh, though it is perhaps not necessarily a movie about flesh in the way a horror audience would expect. Oh, sure, you get the gore of a horror movie, which has contributed to the film's reputation for instilling revulsion (some audiences have reported incidents of nausea and vomiting), but that strikes me as marketing, as a challenge to audiences to endure the film. This sort of thing has a long and honorable tradition dating back to William Castle and beyond. Aside from that, this is a film that is at least partly about having a body made of flesh, particularly a female body made of flesh. A female body that bleeds, even. The film's explicit references to Carrie underlie both the film's acquaintance with blood and women's acquaintance with blood. Cannibalism stands in for sexual awakening, of course, because movies about female flesh are always about sexual awakening in some shape or form. Justine starts the film in a state of virginal repression, represented by her veganism. Once she's tasted meat, she develops a taste for rougher and rougher sex. This is reflected in the performance of Garance Marillier as Justine, who uses the shapes of her posture to communicate her states of innocence and experience. It's a terrific and technically complex job of acting. But the film finds horror in some of the more mundane elements of being female, too. One of the film's ghastliest (and funniest) sequences revolves around a bikini wax. One of the film's social horrors (as opposed to its visceral horrors) involves a party dress.
This is very much a film about rape, a subject that isn't coded into the subtext, but rather part of the text. The scene where Justine ropes her (very gay) roommate into copulating with her has a hint of rape to it, as does the way Alex forces Justine to eat the rabbit kidney. Rape culture is one of the film's more troubling leitmotifs. The sequence that precipitates the film's end game is a kind of horror that's very much au courant with the place of women on social media and in rape culture in general: Justine is drunk out of her mind and enacting her hunger for flesh all while being filmed and put on the internet. All of these scenes give shape to specific fears of women and girls. I cannot imagine a male filmmaker writing or directing a film like this.
I can, however, imagine a male audience becoming deeply uncomfortable during this film. The Monstrous Feminine is always good for getting under the skin of male moviegoers. Most men are uncomfortable enough with the facts of female biology in everyday life, so it doesn't take much to weaponize mundane feminine experiences for them. Justine's sexual appetite is almost a parody of male insecurities toward sexually aggressive women. When the film's gore-soaked finale arrives, those fears seem entirely justified. This is compounded in the film's wicked denouement, in which the film's ostensibly stable male authority figure is shown to be completely at the mercy of his own female monster.
It should be obvious to anyone who is paying attention to the genre that we are currently in one of horror's periodic golden ages. This year's model of horror has a hint of social justice activism underneath it, and, indeed, an interest in the human condition beyond the spilling of viscera. Raw spills plenty of viscera, sure. It's a vivid and angry film. But it also pokes at a raw and bleeding collective id in a way that's new to the genre, a way that makes the film linger in the mind once the images of grue fade in the memory.
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