Any time the press surrounding a film revolves around viewers vomiting or passing out in the theater, it immediately becomes fodder for Dark Side Cinema. DSC is a look at the darkest, nastiest corners of the cinema landscape. We'll take a look at video nasties, freaky foreign flicks, and anything you'd be ashamed to show Grandma. This week, however, it's time to taste the French cannibal indie darling, Raw.
The French sure know how to make a disturbing flick. Not since Pascal Laugier's 2008 film Martyrs have festival audiences been so bothered by a film. Reports of audience members passing out, vomiting, and otherwise acting like delicate Victorian flowers surrounded the film's release.
So what is Raw? Is it more than just a series of shocking moments?
Raw tells the tale of a young veterinary school student, Justine (Garance Marillier), as she tries to survive her freshman year. Justine is submitted to a variety of hazing rituals including eating a raw rabbit liver. The sheltered, sweet girl was raised as a strict vegetarian, and that one bite of rabbit liver sets her down a path of voracious meat-eating.
Raw is the directorial debut of writer/director Julia Ducournau. While she makes a few missteps, this is a surprising, impressive first feature. She previously worked with Marillier on her short film, Junior, about a girl who goes through a startling metamorphosis after contracting a stomach virus. Ducournau seems to like her horror to be disgusting, and it works well in Raw. This isn't your typical slasher-esque cannibal flick, but something much more visceral and emotionally engaging.
The most important element of Raw is the relationship between Justine and her older sister, Alexia (Ella Rumpf). Alexia has been attending the veterinary school for a while, and tries to show her sister the ropes during the school's intense hazing rituals. As a freshman, Justine must endure all kinds of hazing, from being doused with blood to more typical nonsense like forced binge-drinking.
It's important to note that Justine is virginal before attending this vet school. Her budding sexuality awakens shortly after she eats the rabbit liver, and her descent into cannibalism ties neatly with her sexual awakening. She first discovers her lust and bloodlust during one of the school's hazing rituals. She is doused in blue paint and is shoved together with a boy covered in yellow paint. They're told not to come back until they're both green. Instead, the unfortunate yellow boy comes back sort of orange (and missing a chunk of his lip)!
As Justine discovers her carnivorous carnal desires, Alexia begins acting stranger and stranger. Does she share her sister's taste for long pig?
Raw features great performances by Rumpf and Marillier, including one of the best sisterly fight scenes ever. The two start gnashing at each other like wild animals, and the "bite fight" is as hilarious as it is horrifying.
While all that hype about people passing out and vomiting in theaters seems a bit silly, Raw is still a pretty vile cannibal movie. There's lots of flesh-eating, biting, and blood. The special effects are practical and look great, especially poor yellow boy's lip. Raw is a great horror film that fits right in with the French New Extreme movement of the early oughts. The cinematography is understated and fun, with lots of color correction to make everything look particularly cool (as in blue-ish, not "neat"). These icy hues make blood look all the more stark, and creates a sense of detachment from the protagonists.
While Raw isn't a game-changer, it's a fresh, fun entry from a fledgling filmmaker. Ducournau shows off massive potential here, and I for one can't wait to see what she makes next.
Violence: 6/10. Raw is a cannibal flick and thus has its share of nastiness, but the gore here is fairly tame, especially compared to other French horror from the past twenty years.
Sex: 7/10. There's quite a bit of sex here, and the whole movie has a sensuous vibe. There's gay sex, hetero sex, cannibal sex, all kinds of sex! What else did you expect from a movie about college freshmen?
Entertainment value: 8/10. Raw moves at a great pace and has enough ridiculous, fun moments to keep it from getting too heady. Both of the lead actresses are great and the "bite fight" alone is a blast.
Overall rating: 7/10. Raw is especially delightful for female horror fans, but it's a solid debut from Julia Ducournau. The themes of transformation, awakening female sexuality, and competition between siblings give the film more weight than your average cannibal flick. Absolutely worth a watch for fans of films like Ginger Snaps, Excision, and the films of the French New Extreme.