This year’s Monster Fest was full of incredibly well realized horror films, none more so than Raw, a French-Belgian horror/drama with a hint of comedy sprinkled throughout. Raw (or Grave, the original French title) is the third directorial credit for Julia Ducournau, and her first feature length not made for TV. The film takes a story of violence, sensuality, and growth and parallels it with the uncertainty and uncomfortable nature of freshman life. Not an outwardly frightening film, instead Raw uses elements of horror and crosses them with a sort of coming-of-age narrative, as well as a human drama with a focus on the relationships. The film features beautiful imagery, an amazing sense of pacing and fantastic effects. The blood, the gore, the violence is all presented in a realistic way and it all looks great. The opening of the film starts on an incredibly strong foot in regards to imagery and tension, with a figure leaping out onto a road seemingly in the middle of nowhere and causing a fatal car crash, before slowly approaching the vehicle.
Hazing is a culture very familiar to those from America, and even audiences elsewhere have a passing familiarity with it through the medium of film. Raw takes this idea and places it within a veterinary school, which allows for disgusting and quite over-the-top elements, such as pouring buckets of blood over the freshman and eating raw rabbit kidneys for induction, to feel appropriate and well-placed. The events of the film play out through the viewpoint of Justine (Garance Marillier), and thus as each of these hazing incidents occur, we experience them as a confusing but not wholly uncomfortable situation. Simply through the setup of the film, a vegetarian girl from a vegetarian family going to study to be a vet, we can make an educated assumption about Justine’s morals in regards to the lives of animals, and events play out over the beginning half of the film that put her feelings about the subject up front. We understand Justine’s naivety, as well as her general disinterest in the ‘party scene’ that so many of the other students are deeply embroiled in, whilst also understanding her strong will, still presenting her opinions, and accepting the hazing activities put upon her.
The main horror element of this film is cannibalism, with the protagonist finding herself compelled to eat raw meat and experiencing a growing sense of desire for human flesh. The shift from vegetarian to cannibal is one done through excellent pacing, a sense of tension constantly lingering around Justine, and her actions accompanied by the magnificent score composed by Jim Williams (who has worked on several Ben Wheatley films such as Sightseers and Kill List) which serves to build this atmosphere. She finds shame and embarrassment in her predicament, and she initially denies her hunger and rejects it, however as she finds another who shares her hunger, and as she grows and comes to terms with her new lot in life, she finds a level of acceptance that sits comfortably beside her morals and broadening limits. The major talking point on this side of the plot is that through the framing of the film, and Garance Marillier’s brilliant performance, the character of Justine’s descent into cannibalism doesn’t paint her as a ‘monster’. She never sets out to intentionally hurt an innocent; even when she bites a stranger’s lip off, it’s due to him forcing himself sexually upon her, and she finds guilt and regret in her moments of ‘giving in’ to her hunger.
There’s a sprinkling of very dark humour spread throughout, which adds another layer to the film and compliments the other elements so well. The humour works into the coming-of-age element of the film, and is almost always presented completely straight. While throwing up in the bathroom to try and rid the taste of human from her mouth, Justine is approached by a larger girl who gives her the tip that “it’s easier if you use two fingers.” And the turning point of the film is a dramatic and beautifully presented scene in which Justine gives in and eats her sister’s finger, due to the strange situation and their close relationship. In addition to Justine’s surprise and shame, the incredulity on Alexia’s (Ella Rumpf) face give the viewer a moment of lightness following such a serious scene. The humour never feels forced, or incorrectly placed, and it adds to the flow of the film and combines with the horror elements perfectly by comparing and contrasting the two throughout.
The central relationships are the focal point of the film, and they’re built uniquely and incredibly well. There’s no hand-holding in how the relationships form and how they are maintained; the viewers are expected to understand context and it works wonderfully. The relationship between Justine and Alexia is at the centre; their sisterly relationship allowing them to argue, to disagree, to fight, and to share incredibly personal things, before coming back together and wordlessly agreeing to get along again. If they had simply been friends or more distant relations, there would’ve needed to be some sort of ‘making up’ scene after their arguments, but the film doesn’t need to stall with any explanation for their continued closeness. The relationship between Justine and her roommate Adrien (Rabah Naït Oufella) is an incredibly well designed one, and despite Adrien being gay there’s still romantic tension and a sense of belonging that Justine finds with him. Relationships drive this film forward, even as Justine discovers herself and comes to terms with her insatiable hunger.
Raw is a beautiful film in which every actor plays off one another perfectly. Director Julia Ducournau stated in the Q&A at Monster Fest that she told the central three actors (Garance Marillier, Ella Rumpf, Rabah Naït Oufella) to interact, drink, and watch horror films together, and it really shows. They’re incredibly comfortable with each other, unafraid to physically interact, and every scene feels natural. There’s a celebration of intimacy to be found in the film, sensuality and femininity explored with the caveat of cannibalism.
The film apparently made several viewers faint at Toronto International Film Fest, and whilst I always doubt the validity of such stories, the graphic yet realistic imagery and practical effects are certainly on point. The scene where Justine gives into her craving and bites off a hunk of raw fish, and is later unable to stop herself from eating her sister’s severed finger, definitely could make weaker stomachs in the audience churn. The setting was chosen very well; they were able to actually film events in the veterinary school, such as horses being anesthetized, giving the film an element of realism. This accompanies the macabre, realistic effects, including the use of actual animal carcasses. All the meat in the film had a toughness that truly heightened how uncomfortable Justine’s feasting scenes were. The surrounding of animal carcasses, extreme skin conditions, and mutilated people has a Cronenberg-esque pitch to it, and the film basks in the gore to unashamedly explore its ideas.
The final note of the film, which focuses on the information that the sisters’ hunger is a family thing, ends with a level of dark humour that sent a wave of laughter and applause through the theatre. Perhaps it is partly due to the wonderful atmosphere created by the audience at Monster Fest, but this film provided one of the best experiences I’ve had watching a film in a long time. This was my own personal highlight from Monster Fest, and deserves a recommendation. If you’re not out for a horror film filled with outright scares, and are instead looking for an incredibly beautiful film which bathes in that wonderful genre glow, look no further than Raw.