EXPECTATIONS: Something fantastic as it is gory.
REVIEW: In the past decade, I have grown an affinity for French film, especially when they venture into the horror genre. With unbearably intense entries like Inside, Martyrs, Frontier(s); or artful entries like Amer, Evolution, Livid; and film classics like Les Diaboliques and Possession, I had an intense itch to satisfy that could only be satiated with another stellar entry.
So when I read about the huge buzz at Cannes and TIFF about a French cannibal horror film, which involves ambulances at screenings and tons of awards, I knew I had to see that film as soon as possible. Now let’s serve this review Raw, with all the sides!
Garance Marillier stars as Justine, a shy, yet extremely bright young vegetarian who is following his parents’ footsteps (Joanna Preiss, Laurent Lucas) as well as her older sister, Alexia (Ella Rumpf), by attending vet school. She arrives at the university and immediately gets dragged into a hazing initiation, which shows her a world of thrills and danger.
Desperate to fit in, she strays from her principles and eats raw meat for the first time. With sheer amounts of peer pressure, a bunch of alcohol and joints of drugs, Justine soon experiences terrible and unexpected consequences as her true self begins to emerge.
From reading the synopsis, it may seem like that this film is more of a coming-of-age film, rather than a horror entry. And after seeing the final result, that is actually what it is. The storytelling is surprisingly grounded given its genre trappings and director Julia Ducournau handles the film with such an assured hand, that the film rarely feels heavy-handed, even with its unsubtle metaphors (A vegetarian who is also a virgin?).
The genre execution mixed with the plausible grounding of the story is meshed really well, like how a character eats meat for the first time, which is quite reminiscent of experimentation just to conform. Or how one goes to university to discover who they are and how they fit in the world, which is conveyed in the truly messy fashion it is, that almost anyone can relate to. And it is because of Ducournau‘s direction and storytelling chops, that we have an emotional attachment to the story as well as the characters.
Speaking of the characters, the actors assembled for the film are all fantastic. Garance Marillier is astounding as Justine, as she handles the arc of her character like a professional, from the shyness to the depravity, to the vulnerability and finally the acceptance. She reminded me of a more daring version of Saoirse Ronan, and I hope she gets more meaty roles in the future. Equally as good is Ella Rumpf, who is a force of nature as Alexia. Her roughness, her rebellious nature and her slight paternal nature towards Justine, are all handled with nuance and the chemistry the two actresses share is believable and quite touching as it develops throughout the film. Seeing Rumpf on screen reminded me of a mix of French horror queen Beatrice Dalle (who stars in horror films like Inside and Among the Living) and American actress Fairuza Balk, whom I have loved since her first role in the cult-classic sequel, Return to Oz.
The cinematography by Ruben Impens extracts a lot of nightmarish, yet beautiful imagery from the university setting, particularly scenes involving animals. Like a scene involving the newcomers crawling through a vast, dark room, like ants following a trail. While the make-up, by Laura Ozier and SFX specialist Olivier Afonso (who has worked on Inside), is skin-crawlingly convincing. There is a scene where we see a person’s leg that is half eaten, and the make-up is so realistic, that I could not stop staring at it despite being repulsed by it.
With all the gory, nightmarish imagery and the dark story, it would seem that the film would be an arduous experience. But thankfully, it never feels like that and one of the reasons is because of the editing. Under a tight running time of 98 minutes, the editing by Jean Cristophe-Bouzy is intricate, yet free-flowing at times, like during the clubbing sequences. Without the focused editing, the film could have been a lot harder to swallow.
Another reason the film doesn’t feel arduous is because director Ducournau peppers dark humour throughout the film. Like when a character is finished vomiting, a fellow student assumes that she has a eating disorder and quickly shows her how to vomit correctly. Or another scene when Alexis is giving Justine a session of Brazillian wax. It is these moments of mirth that give the film a comedic bite that is similar to the work of Daniel Waters, who has written the classic teen film, Heathers.
And lastly, the musical score by Jim Williams, which not only capably conveys both menacing and entrancing moods very well, but also gives the film a needed dramatic punch in the film’s most intense moments, especially the climax.
Raw was a fantastic experience that had shocked, surprised, thrilled and touched me. I’ll be really surprised if this does not make it to my top 10 by the end of the year. With its assured and professional direction, a fantastic pair of performances, a well-thought out story and a beautiful musical score, Raw is definitely a rewarding meal to savour.
Her film does remind me of David Cronenberg and Daniel Waters, but I will definitely remember her name: Julia Ducournau.
Fantastic pair of performances
Focused and tight editing
Wonderful musical score
Nightmarish imagery and cinematography
Marries genre tropes and true-to-life situations cleverly
The ending is a teeny bit abrupt
Cast: Garance Marillier, Ella Rumpf, Rabah Nait Oufella, Joana Preiss, Laurent Lucas, Bouli Lanners
Director: Julia Ducournau
Screenwriters: Julia Ducournau