French Horror Raw Is Girlhood Gone Gory

Hello, everyone! A new movie review, just in time for a new year! Today I watched Julia Ducournau’s horror Raw, a 100 minute gut-punch of blood, guts, and sisterhood. One of those things is not like the others, but Raw never lets its twisted premise come unravelled. Did I enjoy Raw? Yes. Did I also find it disgusting? Yes, yes, and yes. But who says those qualities are mutually exclusive? Sometimes the best films are the ones that are so hard to watch, you can’t turn away.

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Synopsis: Sixteen-year-old Justine begins veterinary school with trepidation; her parents and sister have already built formidable reputations at the school. On her first night, she is introduced to the school’s grueling hazing week and meets up with her sister Alex, who is one of the hazing ringleaders. After a night of partying, Alex forces Justine, a vegetarian, to eat a raw rabbit kidney despite her protestations. Strange events begin to occur: Justine develops a horrible rash and engages in aggressive behavior with her sister. Only Adrien, her closest friend, seems to be worried. As the hazing week intensifies, so do Justine’s urges, and the once shy teen develops a taste for more than raw kidney.

My take: American horror movies tend to get straight to the point. The “horror” is revealed early on, often in the first scene, whether it be slasher, ghost, or demon, the formula rarely varies. Compared to these films, Raw appears to scattered. The cannibalism doesn’t appear until an hour into the movie, and one might say that the true impact of the film doesn’t hit until the final scene. But while Ducournau’s film takes its time introducing the audience to its conceit, that time is spent constructing an unpredictable, sensual atmosphere that carries the film.

Ducournau keeps us close to Justine, forcing us to experience her fear and bewilderment at the treatment she receives during the hazing week. Her camera is intimate, often focusing close on Justine’s eyes, her hands, and a recurring angle that stares up her long legs in a way that’s not objectifying, but not entirely asexual. The sex is rampant in this film; many of the hazing activities require the girls to dress provocatively, and even in their downtime, Justine and Alex walk about in only a tank top and underwear. But their lack of clothes isn’t so much an emphasis on their sexuality as an emphasis on their flesh. Scenes of the girls tending to sick animals are juxtaposed with Alex plucking Justine’s eyebrows or giving her a bikini wax. Early on in the film, Justine argues with a peer that bestiality with a monkey is the same as rape. A girl confronts her, asking if  Justine would consider the feelings of a raped monkey to be the same of a raped women. Justine says yes, adding “why else are we veterinarians?”

At only a quarter of the way through the film, Ducornau’s point is clear. The cannibalism hasn’t yet started, but in Justine’s eyes, there is already little that separates humans and animals.

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The horror aspect of the film relies heavily on gore, much to its advantage. Raw has some of the most disgusting body horror scenes I have ever watched (or not watched), and they’re made even more frightening by the randomness and nonchalance with which Ducournau presents them. A scene of sisterly grooming ends with a sliced off finger, a rooftop spat devolves into an animalistic death match complete with glistening chunks of flesh. The gore is plentiful and terrible in its realism. But that’s what makes it so fantastic. There’s nothing worse than being snapped out of a horror movie because of the shoddy special effects. Ducournau’s gore is so meticulous and mundane in its carnage that sometimes you forget you’re watching a horror movie and not a documentary.

Besides the glorious gore, Raw revels in its cinematography. The spectre of blood looms early in the film, represented by the bucket of red paint splashed on the vet school rookies at their first daylight hazing ritual. Ducornau is clever that way; she slathers paint on her actors to invoke blood, and bathes them in light when the effect of paint might grow old. She’s already a master of light and color. Her film is as beautiful as it is disturbing.

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When the cannibalism takes full force, Ducornau doesn’t shy away from its brutality. The last few scenes were some of the hardest to watch for me and that’s exactly how it should be. Raw exemplifies perfect horror movie pacing, building and building until the climactic scene leaves you breathless with its consequences. And although Ducournau doesn’t answer all of the questions she’s created in her film, the last scene hits with a force that leaves you satisfied, yet curious. Is cannibalism a metaphor for the overpowering force of female sexuality? Is it an external symptom of a young girl’s need for personal control? Or is Raw just another schlocky story about a family of cannibals, provoking message not included? Any way you interpret it, Raw is an important film and perhaps, dare I say, one of the best horror movies of 2017. Suck on that, Split.

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