(Grave, France, Julia Ducournau, 2016)


Some films have too few thematic touchstones, and developmental variations worked upon them – The Love Witch (2016) is a recent case in point – and others have too many, hitting out in every direction. This second bunch can be admirable – there is evidence of effort and thought, especially at the script level – but also run the risk of being unsatisfying and incoherent.


Raw is an example of the latter trend. In its early stretch, detailing the horrific rigours of being an incoming, rookie student at Veterinary School in France (real-life enrolments must have dropped considerably since the release of this film!), it seems to be about the dehumanising effects of a brutal, educational institution, a little reminiscent of Lindsay Anderson’s If… (1969) and many other movies of that ilk.


When it moves into the happy-go-lucky, sensation-seeking, mobile-phone-recording, wildly clubbing lifestyle of the reckless teens, we inhabit a Larry Clark movie like The Smell of Us (2015). Cued by the theme of eating disorders, strict health regimes (such as vegetarianism) and feminine beauty treatments (the dreaded Brazilian waxing of the genital area), it transits into Claire Denis/Trouble Every Day (2001) territory: transgressive desire and ‘limit experiences’ of the flesh à la Georges Bataille.


Slowly, the story comes to focus more on the mysterious bond between the central, sibling sisters (Garance Marillier as Justine and Ella Rumpf as Alexia). In its final scene, it pulls out a disquieting revelation that takes us from the sisters as a pair to the broader context (hitherto carefully kept covered) of their nuclear family unit, and a horror-makeover of a familiar Claude Chabrol theme.


I am trying to avoid normative judgement on this thematic busy-ness, since what I have elsewhere called semantic contagion is a staple of horror movies old and new – and we can find distinguished examples of it everywhere, from The Birds (1963) to Larry Cohen’s Q – The Winged Serpent (1982).


It’s normal, in a sense, for a film such as Raw to jump from body issues to family issues to social issues, and then do the full circle all over again. This keeps things in motion and maintains intrigue and speculation, introducing new plateaux of thematic organisation all the way along. But – here’s the temptation to hysteria in this structure – it also has the potential to generate incoherencies and confusions, such as the odd role given to Justine’s more-or-less gay roommate, Adrien (Rabah Naït Oufella), as part of the desire/transgression nexus.


Since, in narrative terms, the film needs to constantly conceal as much as it reveals (or hints at being about to reveal) in order to prop up this multi-theme structure, certain, tricky problems of plotting and viewpoint are generated, and never quite resolved. Raw begins with a telemovie-style teaser in artful long shot: a car crash, and someone approaching across the road. We will only know later, when the scene appears in its chronological place, that the scene involves both sisters, plus other innocent bystanders. Yet doesn’t this scene give away too much, even its delayed placement? What we see here outruns what we have come to know, or suspect, to this point about the psychological bond between the siblings.


On a related point, stories that hop from theme to theme also must deal with a problem of the ‘first cause’, i.e., what is at the bottom of all this, what started it all, what’s the point of origin? The film begins with an everyday, vegetarian freak-out  – a bit of sausage ‘contaminates’ a plate of mash, leading to a gagging, vomit reflex on Justine’s part – that places retrospective emphasis, later, on the hazing ritual at school initiation of forcing the rookies to eat some ghastly monkey meat. Alexia shows, in this situation, that she has gone over to the other side with the meat-eating horde. But is this enforced torture via the educational system really the first cause that the film seeks to underline? Surely not. That has to be cloaked and played down, for the finale to have its full effect. But, as so often happens in sensational genre pictures, effect and sense don’t always work to their best, mutual advantage in the construction of the film.


Raw is a very derivative movie – which is not necessarily a bad thing, but wields a tick-off-the-list effect for the viewer here. Body-horror scenes dutifully evoke David Cronenberg (as a French-Belgian production, Raw sometimes has the air of a Canadian telemovie – and I say that as a keen fan of Canadian telemovies!). The play on body phobias takes us back to Roman Polanski’s 1960s classics, Repulsion (1965) and Rosemary's Baby (1968). A passage where searing primary colours take over (especially in the form of red corridors) recalls Nicolas Winding Refn, especially Only God Forgives and The Neon Demon (the latter of which gets into some similar beauty/horror/cannibalism themes).


When the film gets into its really shocking stuff (I am deliberately not spoiling the plot details) for its most effective and startling turning point, the work of Marina de Van (especially In My Skin [2002], but also her less known, star-studded oddity about biomorphic disorder, Don’t Look Back [2009]) looms as a large influence. I’ve already mentioned Larry Clark and, at passing, extreme moments of blur and illegibility we might recall Philippe Grandrieux. At this level, the film is almost an extreme-cinema-of-the-senses anthology.


Despite these reservations, Raw is a confident and striking debut feature. Ducournau will be a figure to follow.

© Adrian Martin June 2017

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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