Usually I stick to American films for my blog. Nothing against foreign films at all, but I’m only one man and since I live in the United States American made movies are just more accessible. I’m not against watching a foreign-made film though especially one with an interestingly grotesque plot like “Raw”, a French horror film released early on this year that I never got to see on the big screen due to its limited release but it came highly recommended. Horror has had its fair share of great films in 2017, some brutal and over-the-top and others more subtle with deeper, more real horror aspects. “Raw” is a little of both, providing an artistic and deep story while also presenting some cringe worthy images that make it a subtle, but gruesomely satisfying entry in 2017’s seemingly endless slate of horror gems.
“Raw”, also named “Grave” in France, follows Justine, a young college prodigy entering a prestigious veterinary school where her older sister, Alexia, is also a student. A lifelong vegetarian, a lifestyle ingrained into her by her mother, Justine takes part in hazing rituals to welcome her into the school that include being bathed in blood and eating a rabbit kidney. Soon Justine’s appetite begins to evolve bringing a craving for raw meat and other foods she previously denied from her diet eventually evolving into a more sinister craving that gives her the longing for human flesh. As Justine fights to control her craving, adopting more animalistic personality traits along the way, she finds that she is not the only one suffering from a passion for consuming her own kind.
“Raw” is probably one of the more appropriately named movies of 2017 (at least in English) as the title perfectly describes what you get out of this film. Part college coming-of-age drama and part artistic horror film “Raw” touches on a selection of themes including college hazing, sibling rivalry, parental paranoia, sexuality, and animal instinct. What’s makes “Raw” so watchable is it strikes a great balance between its brutally graphic imagery, its more erotic themes, and its artistry and avoids delving too far over the edge as either a drama or a horror experience. Characters are well developed and their transformations well presented while the film’s cringe-inducing graphic depictions of cannibalism are both tasteful (no pun intended) and controlled to avoid going too deep into the scene, trading out brutality for more subtle realism. Despite the fact that it’s not as harsh as other cannibalism films “Raw” captures its few moments of inter-human consumption quite well focusing more on the human psyche than pandering to those seeking unabashed gore and bloodshed.
Leading the charge is Garance Marillier, a relative newcomer in France, as Justine who discovers her taste for meat and human flesh as the direct result of a hazing ritual at her new school. Marillier’s performance is littered with some of the most fascinating characteristics and transformations you’ll see on screen this year as she portrays Justine as an innocent, calm and reserved young woman but once she enters college her more animalistic nature is unearthed. As Justine evolves so too does Marillier’s performance as Justine begins to carry herself and even look at others differently when she begins to see pray rather than people. Her eyes become more narrowed, she holds her jaw differently, she carries herself more like a predator ready to strike with more confidence and vigor than a person trying to escape and hide in the shadows. It’s a fascinatingly subtle transformation that fits the central theme of the film, which acts as both a representation of humanity’s inner animal nature as well as a symbolic interpretation of sexual awakening and self-discovery. It’s the kind of performance that had to be done right to really make the film work and Marillier goes above and beyond to embrace Justine’s personality and evolution to the fullest.
Alongside Marillier we have Ella Rumpf as Justine’s sister Alexia, who becomes somewhat of a guide and mentor to Justine as Justine begins to understand more about her urges. There’s more to it that I won’t go into here, but Rumpf fills an important role in this film as not only the first person to discover her sister’s longing for human consumption, but a seemingly more understanding individual who can relate to Justine on a personal level. Rumpf plays the role well, depicting a woman who symbolizes the role models all young women need as they come into their own while also serving an supporting role to drive home the impact of the urges and animal nature present within the movie’s main character. Rumpf and Marillier are both confident, capable actresses who make a great team on screen and effectively capture the essence of these two women right to the shocking end.
If there is anything to criticize about “Raw” it might be the questionable handling of the movie’s more artistic qualities. Don’t get me wrong, the atmosphere is mesmerizing and the imagery is truly fascinating but there are times where this film tries maybe a bit too hard to be more art than entertainment. Director and written Julia Ducournau brings some interesting visual elements to the table which I can’t help but appreciate (remember I drooled over these aspects of “Mother!”), but in “Raw” some of these elements seems a bit forced or out of place, providing little context or even giving the viewer inspiration or reason for further thought into that imagery. Now many of these elements are attributed to Justine’s psyche and new found addiction, but they miss the mark by trying to force a more artsy representation of these concepts where Marillier and the story itself do just fine capturing the same ideas in a more human and stripped down fashion. Thankfully these unneeded artistic elements are few and far between and are far from enough to keep you from enjoying the movie as a whole.
I know I’ve mentioned it already but it needs to be stressed how well “Raw” handles its subject matter. It’s easy to go all out and over the top with the concept of cannibalism. It’s a brutal, cringe inducing, and unthinkable aspect of humanity that one could never even begin to think of as nature. But here it is. It’s not just something Justine does. It’s something that drives her. It’s a hidden nature that does more than just drive the plot and the transformation feels natural and fluid. Even when we finally do see the scenes of flesh consumption, and even the consumption of hair and teeth, it makes us feel uneasy and even possibly nauseous, but it’s so tastefully done that you can’t help but appreciate it. It doesn’t feel unwarranted, it feel’s natural. The design of these scenes is meant to make viewers feel like this is normal behavior when you know you shouldn’t and that’s the most fascinating part of this story. It dares you to look at something unthinkably horrid and see it as a natural part of humanity that few people choose to embrace. The scariest part about “Raw” is that we understand Justine in more ways than one and, to some extent, we want to feel bad for her or justify her actions rather than change her. We feel compassion for something our culture teaches us is wrong and it is truly terrifying to explore the inner mind of what humanity can or is willing to do.
“Raw” is one of the most stripped down and natural feeling horror films of 2017 and while it may not be for everyone and does contain a few artistic elements that slow the film down and fail to build on the overall experience it’s still a top notch project to behold. Taking on more meaningful concepts with a horror twist, “Raw” lives up to its name and provides us with a film satisfying to anyone looking for a more thought provoking experience while also pandering just enough to those looking for a more cringe worthy display of human consumption. Well acted, well-paced, and thoughtfully designed “Raw” brings out the best in its controversial and unsettling premise and once again shows that horror doesn’t have to be about jump scares and gore. Sometimes it’s the monster inside us that is the scariest thing of all.