Studio: Focus World
Director: Julia Ducournau
Writer: Julia Ducournau
Producer: Jean des Forets, Julie Gayet, Nadia Turincev
Stars: Garance Marillier, Ella Rumpf, Rabah Nait Oufella, Laurent Lucas, Joana Preiss, Bouli Lanners, Marion Vernoux
A vegetarian undergoes a startling transformation after a veterinary school hazing ritual gives her an unhealthy craving for meat.
Every year there is one horror movie whose artsy appeal and ballyhooed buzz earn it special love/hate status as a fright flick fandom polarizer. In 2014, it was “The Babadook.” In 2015, it was “It Follows.” 2016 was the year of “The Witch.”
More recently, a newer festival circuit trend has emerged where there is now a companion title awarded annually for horror film hyped with an accompanying “people fainted/vomited/spontaneously combusted” screening story. It’s a probable publicity ploy so hackneyed, even William Castle would shake his head in shame.
Chad Archibald’s chiller “Bite” (review here) took home top honors for 2015. Two people allegedly passed out at the movie’s Fantasia Film Festival premiere in Montreal, with one smacking his head on some stairs while another projectile puked.
If you can believe it, and if you do I have a bridge to sell you, the same thing supposedly happened at the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival for French filmmaker Julia Ducournau’s coming-of-age cannibal fable “Raw.” Two people fainted during the show and an ambulance apparently arrived at the scene to provide treatment.
Aside from Canadian venues and people dropping in pairs, what do such stories share in common? Never a name for anyone who fell ill, no corroboration from a source not associated with the festival or the film, and only pictures of ambulances that could have come from anywhere. I can’t claim with 100% conviction that these occurrences are always staged marketing gimmicks. But how is it that in this digitally-connected social media era, seemingly no one takes out a phone for a snapshot that says, “chaos at tonight’s screening – here’s a paramedic attending to a patron in the lobby?”
Head’s up to any PR person who may be considering another spin of this same yarn in 2017 and beyond: it’s hard to focus on the film through rolling eyes and to hear over yawns at such useless external noise. In the case of “Raw” specifically, fainting rumors are an unnecessary distraction detrimental to letting the movie promote itself on merit. “Raw” is misrepresented as some sort of sideshow freak whose chief draw is gross-out gore as a stomach-churning challenge of gag reflexes, which couldn’t be further from the true substance offered by the film.
“Raw” is the chronicle of Justine, a young woman raised in a family devoted to vegetarianism the way Bible Belt Christians are devoted to Jesus. Justine is away from mom and dad’s eyes for the first time as a freshman at veterinary school, where at least she has older sister Alex, who is also a student, to help her adjust to an unfamiliar life as a college coed.
Making those adjustments is no easy feat. This school has a hazing process so vicious, it makes “Animal House” look like “Sesame Street.”
Having a mattress tossed out the window is tame. Having to attend classes covered in animal blood is less so. Yet the devilish dare that really gets Justine going is being forced to do a shot with a raw rabbit kidney.
Justine invokes the 5th amendment of vegetarianism, but the elders aren’t having it. When Alex drops a kidney down her own gullet as goading, Justine has no choice except follow suit or be ostracized. Justine swallows her first taste of meat and in so doing, these vet school Frankensteins have unknowingly created a monster.
Justine’s newfound carnivorous cravings start with stealing a hamburger patty from the cafeteria and delightful devouring truck stop shawarma. They don’t end there, however. Justine wants as much meat as she can put in her mouth, and she’ll take it raw. She doesn’t understand her unhealthy obsession, though she does understand it consumes her. It isn’t until her sister shares a certain secret that Justine finally starts seeing who she is turning into, and that person is absolutely terrifying.
“Raw” is uniquely transfixing in more ways than one. For superficial starters, it may be the only horror movie set in a veterinary school. Unusual side scenes stoke small curiosities with this atypical setting as students insert entire arms inside cows, dissect dogs, and watch a horse take a tranquilizer.
What really turns the movie’s simmer into a searing sizzle are standout performances from Garance Marillier and Ella Rumpf as the sisters. Marillier’s wide eyes simultaneously sell ingénue naivety and fierce resilience. Justine exists on a transformative precipice where she can either be buried under mounting pressure or resolve herself to climb over it. Marillier, bringing to mind more than a bit of Maisie Williams from “Game of Thrones,” plays that personality straight down the middle, leaving the audience unsure which side of Justine will ultimately win the fight for her final characterization.
Rumpf performs a similar balancing act as tomboyish bad girl Alex, alternately nurturing as a big sister or antagonistic as another berating bully. One of several subtexts in “Raw” concerns evolving identity against external influences, and both actresses carry their charisma into characters struggling to tune their strengths and vulnerabilities while navigating, sometimes blindly, an often overwhelming environment.
“Raw” can be viewed as a parable exploring multiple themes, particularly as a condemnation of college hazing culture. As awful as some of the rituals may seem, more shocking is the complicity of faculty in the demeaning traditions. Writer/director Julia Ducournau seems to suggest that Justine is immersed in institutionalized toxicity, with “suck it up” conformity her only option for survival until she finds another way to rebel.
Of course, the most meaningful horror stories always have an option to tune out allegory if all someone wants is entertainment. And “Raw” has enough blood and body parts to make Ruggero Deodato and Eli Roth turn green with envy, maybe even with nausea. “Raw” does not disappoint with unsettling scenes certain to have you uneasily scratching at sympathy pains as Justine goes down her hole of macabre metamorphosis.
Just forget all of the fainting hullabaloo making you think the movie might be something it is not. That’s carnival barker claptrap taking away from the real meat of “Raw,” which is a personalized horror story charged with commentary to complement its carnage.
Review Score: 80