Film Review – Raw (Second Take)
Raw (2016) starts off hinting towards something diabolical. A horror film about cannibalism is always a good starting point for an icky story. And while we do get plenty of horror involving the consumption of human flesh, the final product may not be what we expected. Whether that’s a good or bad thing will be up to you.
It starts off creepy enough. A group of young people enter a veterinarian school. On the outside, the campus looks like any other college – with classrooms, dormitories, etc. But we start getting the sense that things aren’t exactly what they seem. The incoming freshmen (labeled as “rookies”) are put through a rigorous initiation phase, a “rush” week as it’s known. But their rush week is slightly different from other fraternities or sororities. Here, rookies are ordered to sing derogatory songs, march in place, wear their lab coats everyday without ever cleaning it, etc. The first day on campus, they’re doused in cow blood and forced to eat a raw rabbit liver. Apparently at this school, to be a veterinarian you have to become “one” with the animals.
Writer/director Julia Ducournau presents these opening scenes as though something sinister is taking place. Are these kids taking part in a cult that eats raw meat? Is the school a front for some evil conspiracy? Ducournau presents the first act with shrouded mystery; we never really get our bearings as to what exactly is going on. This is not a bad thing. In fact, I was drawn to Raw far more in the first half, as I was trying to unravel all the strangeness of the campus. But the strength of Ducournau’s work also leads toward its weakness. The further the truth was revealed, the less interested I became. The eccentricity of the school serves only as red herring for a smaller, more personal story.
We soon come to learn that Raw isn’t so much a horror film about cannibalism, but rather a coming of age story of someone who just happens to be a cannibal. If you took John Hughes and gave him an affinity for blood and guts, you’d be getting somewhere close. We center on Justine (Garance Marillier), a fellow rookie trying to adjust to her new life as a student. Despite having a dorm roommate (Rabah Nait Oufella) who looks out for her and an older sister (Ella Rumpf) who tries to show her the ropes of the school, Justine still has difficulty living away from home. There’s also the fact that Justine was raised as a strict vegetarian by her parents. While that tidbit would help explain her desire to treat animals, it poses as a problem when her initiation has her covered with animal blood and forced to eat meat.
But once she does get a taste for meat, the initial shock and disgust gives way to a morbid curiosity for more. And it’s at this point where Ducournau’s intention is laid out. The cannibalism that Justine succumbs to is a metaphor for the blossoming of a young girl into a woman. This could mean in terms of maturity, or more likely sexually. Much is made of Justine being a virgin, and Ducournau doesn’t hold back from exposing Justine to the tornado of sexual energy surrounding the school. Are there any other themes involving animal cruelty, the benefits/detriments of a vegetarian diet, the social dynamics of college, or the delicacy of family bonding? Not really. All the ingredients are there, but Ducournau seems more concerned with Justine’s journey to “discover herself” than anything else. As a result, the narrative as a whole is relatively small.
It’s also not very scary. There are some intense body horror sequences, such as when Justine develops an itchy rash all over her body, or when her sister tries to teach her the benefits of waxing to some very bad results. But these instances don’t scare or unnerve, the effect is more akin to nails scratching a chalkboard. It’s off putting when you’re in middle of it, but once it’s over it doesn’t leave much resonance to take home.
Durcournau is a fine visual stylist. Some of the more notable scenes have a dreamlike quality, making full use of slow motion to achieve the desired effect. Ruben Impens’ cinematography lends to a heightened reality. For all the gore that we get, I was more shaken by the slow motion shots of students crawling on their hands and knees during an initiation or the simple image of a horse galloping on a treadmill. These scenes had more of an impact than all of the flesh eating.
The biggest problem with Raw is how goofy it got the further it went along. This isn’t necessarily a problem, but I sense that much of the comedy here was unintentional. As Justine’s arc unfolded the more ridiculous it became, to the point where the audience at my screening started giggling in their seats. The more intense it got about Justine’s “condition,” the funnier it became.
Raw isn’t very shocking, disturbing, or thought provoking. Although Garance Marillier gives a dedicated performance as the central role, everything else comes off as kind of bland. It’s not that bad, but it’s not that great either. It’s a nice piece of steak that’s undercooked, so to say.