Horror really isn’t my genre. I’ve said that a lot on this site, but it’s probably my biggest gap in cinematic knowledge. I don’t really have anything against the genre, it’s just never really been my thing, and typically hasn’t spoken to me. But there are certainly horror movies that I enjoy, and it certainly seems like we’re in a bit of a Renaissance going on for thoughtful and interesting horror. I don’t want that to be a slam on horror, saying that it’s normally all dumb, bloody, and full of jump-scares, but I’ve certainly been noticing more and more horror movies that seem to have something interesting to say, and approach the genre in new and unique ways. So I’ve been trying to keep a more open mind, and give more horror movies a fair shot. And it’s helped when I start to hear amazing things about a horror movie that seems to blow everyone away. Especially when it’s a movie that’s almost universally beloved, is hailed as a staggering work of genius that will leave an indelible mark on your psyche, and represents one of the strongest debuts from a filmmaker in recent memory. Those kind of accolades will certainly pique my interest. And once such movie is the French-Belgian film Raw, which dominated several festivals last year, and has finally been released to the larger public. So I went to check it out, probably unfortunately at an Alamo Drafthouse so I had just had a meal sitting in my stomach just in time for the gore to begin, and got to witness this fascinating film.
Raw tells the story of a young woman named Justine who is being brought to a veterinary college by her parents, who happen to be alumni. It’s apparently a family profession, because Justine’s sister Alexia is also attending the school, a couple years ahead of Justine. Justine is an incredibly sheltered person, having seemingly never been out on her own, living under her rather oppressive parents and their rules. So it’s quite a culture shock when she finds herself in the college, suddenly able to make decisions on her own. And it’s not helped by the fact that this school has some absolutely absurd hazing, putting these first-year students through absolute hell. It seems like Justine has a supporter in Alex, but she too seems to side with the hazing, trying to get Justine to be a normal student. She even doesn’t have a roommate to lean on, because she can’t quite get over the fact that her new roommate is a gay man named Adrien, who also expects her to be something she’s not. So Justine just has to drift around, trying to keep a low profile and figure out who to be. And, to make matters worse, one of the hazing standbys is to have the students eat a raw rabbit liver, which becomes the first piece of meat that Justine has ever had. And she seems to have a severe allergic reaction to it, being covered in a horrible rash.
And this is really just the beginning. Justine continues to drift through the college, finding herself at odds with seemingly everyone. She just can’t get a hold of this new culture, and this strange sickness that seems to be affecting her. And things absolutely get crazy when Justine is hanging out with Alex one night, and after a series of mistakes, Alex’s finger is cut off. Alex passes out, and while Justine panics about what to do, she’s met with a sudden and powerful desire to eat the finger. Which she does, right as Alex is waking up. Which you would think would be a huge problem. But it turns out that this little spate of cannibalism is a family trait, because once Alex gets out of the hospital she reveals that she too has a penchant for eating humans. And if Alex thought that this would make Justine feel safe and accept her issue, she’s wrong. Justine is horrified by this, and begins doing everything she can to ignore her issues. She slowly begins to go insane, constantly surrounded by gore and horror from learning how to be a veterinarian, and doing everything she can to smother her impulses and pretend that the don’t exist. Which isn’t helped by Alex taking these measures as a slight, and doing everything in her power to expose Justine during a party. And from there everything falls apart. Justine, Alex, and even Adrien’s lives are completely changed, and no one is better off for it.
This is a movie that really needs to be seen to be believed. I heard all kinds of things about this movie. People at the various festivals reported that it was a magnificent debut from Julia Ducournau that exceeded every expectation, and that it was one of the most effecting films released in that festival. I heard that there were people throwing up from the gore. But I also heard that this was a deeply personal and fascinating coming of age tale. Which would seem at odds with each other, but it somehow isn’t. This is a beautifully and impacting movie that really wasn’t like anything I’d seen before. It’s a gorgeously shot, meticulously crafted, and deeply personal film that almost defies explanation. Every actor in the film is knocking it out of the park, delivering performances dripping with tension and horror. This isn’t a film that relies of gimmicks or tricks. There aren’t any jump-scares that are meant to startle you. The gore is there, but it’s not a centerpiece. This isn’t a gore-fest like an Eli Roth movie where there’s no substance behind it. This isn’t a movie that’s just trying to disgust you. It’s trying to terrify you by showing something that’s so outside the average person’s experience, and re-contextualizes it a setting that seems relateable.
And that’s really where the genius of this movie comes from. Yes, they made a gory cannibal movie. That’s something that’s been done. But this film somehow took the idea of a cannibal, something a majority of people have no experience of knowledge of, and somehow made it understandable. Because this movie isn’t necessarily about cannibalism. It’s about being different. This is a movie where Justine is finding herself in a new world, a world where there are certain things expected of her. College is a time where you’re supposed to find out who you really are. But, there’s a bit of hypocrisy in that, because you’re also expected to perform to some designated roles. College students are supposed to find themselves, but in the way that’s been preordained. You’re supposed to party, celebrate your freedom, and generally act like an idiot. Which isn’t helped by things like hazing, which lets people who are still basically children act like fools with little to no supervision. And this isn’t how Justine wants to be. She has a different view of herself, and she’s constantly being socially punished by the others for this. And then she discovers something about herself, something that she knows will ruin her, and she has to keep it hidden. Now, this could take on several different meanings, but they all boil down to finding out something about yourself that you feel should be hidden. Cannibalism is just the extreme of that sentiment. It’s one of the biggest double-standards of growing up. You’re expected to find out who you really are, but only if that someone is who you’re supposed to be. And that’s an immensely relateable kind of horror. Finding out who you are, and finding that it’s not something that others have deemed as acceptable is one of the scariest things that can happen in your young life. You just have to hope that what you are isn’t a cannibal. Fingers crossed.
Raw was written and directed by Julia Ducournau and released by Wild Bunch and Focus World, 2017.
Categories: Reel Talk