25 April 2017

Raw review

It's been nearly a week since I saw Raw, the latest film from French director Julia Ducournau, and in truth I still feel just a little queasy when I think about it. From its opening scene, Raw is a film that maybe more than anything else seeks to provoke its audience, and regardless of what the intended reaction is - disgust, fear, horror or even laughter - it's very, very good at getting it. It's not going to be a film for everyone, or maybe even a film for most, but those able to stomach Raw's particular brand of horror will find a movie able to get under your skin and stay there in a way that very few can.

We follow lifelong vegetarian Justine as she begins her first year at the veterinary college that her older sister attends, and that her parents attended many years ago. After a bizarre hazing ritual forces Justine to eat meat for the first time in her life, she develops a horrific rash that once cured leaves her hungry for more.

Raw is effectively a coming-of-age film mixed with a healthy dose of body horror, but as bizarre and potentially off-putting as that combination may sound, Ducournau marries the two so well that they seem like natural bedfellows come the end credits. It would be easy to give the impression that Raw is an empty gross-out and nothing more, but that couldn't be further from the truth - while its many gross-out moments are indeed hugely effective and stomach-churning, they're also all in service of a story about a young woman finding herself when given a level of freedom that her parents had previously denied her.

When taken on those terms, it doesn't take too much brainpower to connect Justine's meat-free diet as symbolic for a very different kind of meat-free, and the sexually-charged nature of many of the scenes after Justine quite literally comes out of her shell bear that out. She's an innocent young woman who is in effect corrupted by her older sister and the culture of the college she's studying at, becoming someone else in the process in an attempt to fit in - or is that who she has been all along, an aspect of herself kept subdued by her overprotective parents until now?

Raw gives its audience a lot to mull over, and it's questions like this - and the aforementioned gross-out scenes - that keep the film engaging throughout and wedged firmly in the brain long after it's over, even if the movie itself does maybe put too firm a lid on speculation by the time the credits roll. Raw isn't the first film to over-explain itself, but it may be the most frustrating example of it - we've got enough "clues" to make sense of everything ourselves, but the very last scene still decides to put it all out in black and white for us, undermining a lot of the faith that Raw had placed in its audience in the first place.

Still, it's hard to be too annoyed with this fairly minor error in judgement when the rest of the film displays such solid judgement throughout. It would have been easy for Ducournau to overplay her hand with the films aforementioned gross-out scenes, but between a refusal to allow these scenes to overstay their welcome and a deliberate escalation of how graphic they are as the film progresses, Raw never allows its audience to become desensitized and as such remains shocking throughout. In a similar vein (and ignoring the wholly unnecessary couple of minutes that close the film), Raw itself doesn't outstay its welcome either, using its relatively short runtime incredibly well and getting out long before running out of new ideas or the sense of purpose that drives it throughout.

But maybe most important to Raw's success is the truly brilliant performance that actress Garance Marillier gives as main character Justine. Even ignoring how much she contributes to the effectiveness of the film's gross-out scenes, the transformation that Justine goes through from the start of Raw to the end of it is an enormous one, and without Marillier selling every step of that journey to us as well as she does, the entire film would fall flat regardless of its other strengths. She starts out sheepish and unassuming, very much a deer in the headlights of adult life - the fact that we so readily believe in her transformation to prowling predator is testament to how good an actress she is.

Add to all that the beautifully textured cinematography of Ruben Impens and a score from composer Jim Williams that may well be the most instantly iconic and wholly unsettling I've heard in a film, and Raw ends up offering an experience that you quite simply won't get from any other film. If you can see only one French coming-of-age body horror cannibal movie this year, make it Raw.

5 stars

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