Word of mouth is always a good way to get people interested in your movie, especially if it’s a horror film. When I heard about people fainting at the Toronto International Film Festival whilst seeing Julia Ducournau’s Raw (2016) I couldn’t help but roll my eyes because film festival people are nuts (Hacksaw Ridge (2016) did not need a standing ovation), but learning more about the film and its female writer/director definitely scratched my inquisitive itch. Cannibalism as a subject matter has given me the heeby-jeebies in the past, but I embraced my inner child looking to prove himself as I went into the theater to see how I too would react to the visceral imagery.
Before I really get into Raw, I will say that I’ve seen gorier films, ‘horror’ or otherwise, but this didn’t hurt the movie in the slightest. Ducournau goes for quality instead of exploitative quantity, and it makes for some of the most realistic looking violence I’ve seen in awhile. The makeup effects are seriously top notch, and with clever editing and camerawork you really do feel like every bite taken is genuine. I can honestly see how especially squeamish people (babies) would faint at some of this. For me, at least, it made for a very fun movie-going experience as I found myself wincing in my seat, yet unable to look away. However, not to diminish Ducournau’s efforts, but the scenes and moments having to do with the cannibalism are easily the most inspired. Although one could argue for the film’s thematic strengths, the writing surrounding these various moments left me with confusion and questions more than anything else. One such question being, how many movies can one pay homage to throughout an hour and forty minutes?
Justine (Garance Marillier) is a sheltered vegetarian from a family of vegetarians who is college bound for her first year of veterinary school. The film continues along with this normal set-up until everything goes wild out of nowhere, and the older students don ski masks, forcing the “rookie” first years out of their rooms and into the basement to begin hazing for “rush week” (the term they use). I don’t care how outside the realm of reality your movie is trying to be (or maybe this is how Belgian vet schools work?), I don’t buy for a second that there is just no adult supervision and the students basically run the show. There are professors, but they accept this as the norm and are very aware of what goes on with the hazing. I’m also sick of movies romanticizing this kind of behavior, even if it does serve as a useful dramatic tool. The reclusive Justine is the only one not blindly accepting the Animal House (1979) levels of madness until her older sister Alexia (Ella Rumpf), who is also attending vet school, takes Justine under her wing to indoctrinate her i.e. pressure her into going along with the hazing. This involves forcing the vegetarian Justine to eat raw meat right after a Carrie (1976) inspired blood dumping prank on the “rookie” class photo, which begins her cravings for more and more kinds of meat.
Now despite my justified predispositions against the film’s plot device, my issues with the film really lie with the older sister character. It feels like a glaring case of script vs. production, where the story wanted the relationship between the sisters to be a much stronger element of the film, but Justine on her own is much more compelling and just straight up more fun. Once again, if you look at the film thematically through Justine’s struggle to fit in while maintaining her individualism, the sister feels like a much stronger and more important element. They bond through activities like getting drunk and peeing on the roof together, playing video games, and waxing Justine’s pubic hair; things sisters would do. Unfortunately, the more time spent on good scenes like this, the more you realize that you don’t know anything about Alexia. Her character is purposefully under-developed for the sake of a mystery element that ultimately culminates in an end-of-the-movie-twist that one can predict long before it happens, which also makes her actions feel much more unmotivated and confusingly contradictory.
Thankfully, Justine is a strong enough character to where she can hold up the movie on her own. Garance Marillier’s performance is electric, hitting every note from shy and sheltered to animalistically lustful, perfectly. She can’t help but make you feel uncomfortable as she savagely gives in to her cravings while a booming over the top as all hell score that made me think of Suspiria (1977) plays over it. Even if the writing is all over the place, she keeps you grounded and reminds you that you’re watching a horror movie: something that’s tense and alarming with the right amount of fun and gross-out silliness. Everything that is Marillier will make her and Raw stand out strongly in the annals of more tonally serious low-budget cannibal films, but perhaps not as strongly as the many superior horror classics it references.