There is a horror renaissance of late, with the genre moving away from the overly cynical, cheaply made, “found footage” style that dominated it for a decade, and more towards that which is truly well-made, and character-driven. Shrewd storytelling seems to be trumping cheap thrills and jump-out-of-your-seat shocks. Movies like THE CONJURING, THE BABADOOK, IT FOLLOWS, DON’T BREATHE and this year’s GET OUT have elevated the genre with true artistry in the past few years. No longer can those sloppy and silly movies like all those slapdash sequels to PARANORMAL ACTIVITY and THE PURGE be regarded as good enough for the genre. Not when you have people like Jordan Peele showing how horror should be done.
This horror renaissance is a worldwide phenomenon too, and France’s latest entry into the mix stands with the best of the past few years. Petit Films’ RAW opened across the USA this weekend, and while it may have an arthouse veneer to it because of its European heritage, it is a film that should have broad appeal in this country. It is both sophisticated in its droll, French sort of way, but it also serves up a generous helping of gore for those who like their film-going filled with overt bloodletting. One might have to go back to Eli Roth’s HOSTEL films to find a major release with as much eye-covering, cringe-inducing set-pieces. Still, if audiences can stomach some of the graphic gore here, they will ultimately experience one truly outstanding horror film.
What makes RAW so terrific? For starters, writer/director Julia Ducournau’s story is a monster movie that wisely recognizes that the greatest monster in horror is always man. And here, those monsters roam all too freely amid the bullying and dehumanizing fraternal system plaguing higher education these days. Justine (Garance Millier) is a freshman enrolled at a French veterinarian college, and she’s a seriously smart young woman dedicated to following in the family tradition of expert vets. Mom and Dad are her roles models, and sister Alexa (Ella Rumpf) is on her way to the family vocation too, as she just started her second year at the school. All of them respect animals so much that they’re also strict vegetarians. In fact, the introductory scene of the film showcases Justine’s protest to a local eatery when she finds traces of meat evident in her mashed potatoes. Eating meat is not healthy for her, physically or mentally. In fact, it’s amoral.
|Garance Millier and Raban Nait Oufella in RAW.|
And in her first weeks at school, Justine impresses with her discipline towards her studies and her wise-beyond-her-years maturity. She finishes a tough exam in no time which unfortunately discombobulates her sexist and patriarchal professor. Nonetheless, Justine is a bright-eyed and studious girl, concentrating with laser focus during all her classes and through every experiment conducted on live or dead animals. She’s even crafty enough to win over her self-absorbed gay roomie Adrien (Rabah Nait Oufella) and find a budding friendship with someone who's almost her polar opposite.
What she doesn’t adapt to very well is the school’s ruthless fraternal indoctrination. The hazing of freshman is truly horrific as presented here, with upper classmen abusing plebs by pelting them with garbage, destroying their property left and right, even gleefully drenching them with buckets of animal blood in a series of sadistic rituals. Such atrocities rub Justine the wrong way and she even dislikes the weekend parties. They're too loud and too crass for her with their overt displays of carnality and casual drug use.
Truth be told, she's right. It's all too aggressive and intimidating. Most of the hazing rituals truly qualify as assault. The freshmen are forced to do things like strip down, get covered in paint, and fornicate. The innocent newbies are also ordered to eat raw animal guts and that truly drives the rigid Justine apoplectic. She looks to her sister to defend her vegetarianism at that moment, but instead Alexa bullies her younger sis into swallowing the meat. Justine does but becomes horribly ill, vomiting and breaking out in nasty hives. The red and raw rash sends her to the sick ward. Thus starts a steady and damaging body metamorphosis that will change Justine for the worse. Eating meat will soon start arousing her senses, turning her into something more animalistic than human. Even the aroma of raw meat and fresh blood will soon start to intoxicate her, and such carnivorous urges will turn into ravenous hunger.
Justine fights it, trying to concentrate on her studies, but the upperclassmen constantly distract her from her purpose with their dehumanizing games. Make no mistake, this film's theme is about such dehumanization and how it turns even good people into mobs of monstrosity. The bullying of the freshman will take its toll on Justine, splitting her in two, almost like she's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. She wants to be the good doctor, but she will find it harder and harder to fight the more primal urges of her more base self. Soon, the beast within will no longer be able to be contained. The savage will be unleashed and forever quiet the sprite young innocent.
|Ella Stumpf in RAW.|
Alexa may be the worst of all the bullies that Justine encounters, indicting family as an institution as well here. She constantly chides and derides her younger sister at every turn. Alexa is especially brutal in how she mocks her sister’s virginity and her unshorn pubic region. Reluctantly, Justine agrees to let Alexa wax her genitalia to make it more "attractive" to boys, but when a pair of scissors are needed to assist in the trimming, Justine panics and ends up causing her sister to lose half a finger. Alexa faints at the sight of her severed digit but Justine doesn't ring for help. Instead, she approaches the finger as a new delicacy to try, finding the aroma of her sis's flesh and bone too inviting. Justine starts gnawing on the finger, rendering it unsuitable for surgical reattachment. In doing so, she succumbs to her taste buds, as well as trumps her sister in their power struggle for the very first time.
Soon, Justine is experiencing literal bloodlust and it starts her on a course towards cannibalism. It's a course that she will find out that her sister is charting too. Then the freshman girl will follow suit in other ways, acting more and more like her immature and brash older sibling. Justine hungers for more, and even decides to give up her virginity to Adrien, of all people. Their sex act seems more like a vicious attack, and it's the first time that Justine seems all too learned in following the grotesque acts of her upperclassmen. As she writhes wildly atop her lover, Justine bites into her own flesh, drawing blood. It appears to be a riff on the cliché of pillow biting during orgasm, only here Justine chews on her own flesh to add more pleasure to the moment.
With all that bloodletting, and impending scenes of more overt cannibalism, watching RAW can be a gruesome experience. When the film premiered at Cannes last year, some audience members ran out of the auditorium straight to the toilets to throw up as a reaction to the grosser sequences. But make no mistake, despite a few gut-wrenching moments in the film, this is not exploitative cinema like those grind house horror shows in the 70's. It’s incredibly thoughtful filmmaking about a tawdry subject in its way, yes, but mostly, it truest shocks are in portraying how vicious supposedly respectable society can be. This film adamantly indicts modern society’s growing preponderance towards bullying.
|Filmmaker Julia Ducournau|
It’s quite a political film. Amongst the freshmen degradations, the female newbies get it the worst. They're treated like sexual playthings, forced to parade around in their underwear and overtly sexual clothing. This film is called RAW not just for the edible themes but for the tangible themes showing women being treated like so much raw meat.
Still, even with such savage commentary, the film is never a downer. It actually has dozens of moments of levity that will have you laughing out loud. In fact, the film delights in letting us in on the joke as its sense of humor revels in its darkness. When Justine and Alexa have a knock-down, drag-out fight on campus, they literally bite and claw at each other. It may seems like just another cat fight, but the chunks they take out of each other are quite substantial. These girls have an appetite for destruction, and each other!
Ducournau loves symbolism and not for nothing are Adrien and Alexa shown constantly delighting in drawing blood via first-person shooter video games. Justine’s rash just can’t be scratched enough, and her attempts to relive the itch resemble throes of ecstasy. And when Alexa covers for her sister’s eating of her finger by blaming it on the family pooch, she dooms the unfortunate dog to euthanasia. Later, when he's shown in his state of rigor mortis, the poor thing is now just another animal on the slab to these cold, killing sisters. They’ve completely lost their empathy for animals, be it the four-legged kind, or those that walk upright on two.
From its stark and chilling cinematography by Ruben Impens, to its insinuating score by Jim Williams, to its precise and bold editing by Jean-Christophe Bouzy, Ducournau is making an intricate and elegant film despite its outrageous subject matter. She’s aces with actors too and the performances seem all too real, thereby making their outrageous actions play as even more terrifying.
This horror movie, like GET OUT, is an “instant classic.” To have such genre gems come out in the same month, just three months into 2017, is an embarrassment of riches. Can it continue through the next nine months, and turn this year into a banner one for horror? We shall see, but make no mistake few films will will go down as uneasily as RAW, but this is nonetheless a very special film to savor.