Julia Ducournau’s disturbing and grisly ‘Raw’ got one hell of a burst of publicity when an audience member fainted during the film’s premiere at TIFF last year and was taken out of the theater on a stretcher. That’s classic horror movie marketing magic and the exact story has been used to sell scare-fests from William Castle through ‘The Exorcist’.
As a reaction to ‘Raw’, it’s a bit much. This isn’t an endurance test horror film designed to separate viewers from their partially digested dinners. While Ducournau delivers some nasty images that aren’t easy to forget, the film is more a work of slow-burn psychological horror with a metaphoric punch. This is a sick and smart debut from a filmmaker who shows tremendous promise, even if her first feature feels more like a sum of her influences than an original vision.
Garance Marillier stars as Justine, a college freshman who is particularly awkward and alienated. She has followed the family path of entering the same bizarre veterinarian college as her parents and big sister (Ella Rumpf, who’s a senior when li’l sis signs up). The school is a foreboding cement structure that feels like something out of a vaguely dystopian 1970s movie. The hazing rituals are bizarre and intense, usually involving buckets of blood, animal bits, and hefty doses of alcohol. One of the rituals requires the vegetarian Justine to nibble down a raw rabbit kidney. Although she initially refuses, she eventually chokes down the meat. Suddenly, that tiny morsel awakens an unexpected hunger within her. She chomps down raw meat feverishly, and strange new urges build within her, not the least of which is a taste for human flesh.
‘Raw’ definitely falls into the category of art house horror, and more specifically within that special box of French extremity that has occupied the twisted minds of filmmakers such as Gaspar Noé and Claire Denis. However, this is less a slice-and-dice bit of exploitation than a thoughtful film as dripping with metaphor as it is with the red stuff. Ducournau’s primary forbearers are the early works of David Cronenberg and the underrated 2002 self-cannibalization flick ‘In My Skin’. The director is working within the world of body horror, which typically comes with symbolic purpose. The movie is an exploration of everything from the unexpected power and urges that come with developing into a sexual being, to the discomforting gruel and greed of meat consumption, and undoubtedly a half dozen or so other themes that will be written about in undergraduate essays for years to come. The imagery is pointed and poignant in addition to being downright disgusting.
Ducournau delicately weaves an atmosphere of dread in addition to all the dismemberment. Though fantastical (and occasionally darkly humorous), the world feels grounded. The lead performances from Marillier and Rumpf are equally thoughtful and pained. Some remarkably vulnerable and relatable moments of familial bonding and strained college relationships are baked into the madness. It helps serve up the outlandish grew and symbolism with a certain level of credibility that sells it. As a genre audience manipulator, Ducournau expertly takes her time and builds up feelings of dread before striking with her ghastly terrors. Indeed, many moments here inspire gasps, gulps and gags. It’s a nasty little horror picture, but happens to be equally interested in exploring the meaning behind those images as grabbing viewers by the throats with them.
Unfortunately, while Ducournau shows tremendous promise and talent in ‘Raw’, the artist is also still a bit rough around the edges. As intriguing as her mix of heady personal expression and vicious gore might feel, it’s deeply indebted to so many previous movies that it won’t seem particularly fresh or exciting to those who have also viewed the filmmaker’s DVD library. Likewise, the movie will play as a bit pretentious and overblown for genre fans who like to separate their grindhouse fare from art house pomposity, and will be a bit too graphic and thin for those only seeking out intellectual satisfaction. Still, these quibbles are only the difference between a damn good arty horror flick and a great one. ‘Raw’ is an icky and intellectual bit of Grand Guignol filmmaking certain to please those looking for horror thrills a little bit left of center. Don’t worry about fainting, but maybe skip the snacks eat a light meal beforehand.