The French horror film Raw is currently testing American appetites for arthouse cannibal-themed cinema with a limited theatrical run in the US and will be hitting VOD later this summer. Written and directed by Julia Ducaurnau, her first feature serves up a visceral experience that grossed out audiences at Cannes Film Festival, and has also left true horror fan mouths watering. There is something tasty for everyone in this story about a lifelong vegetarian who slowly becomes a blood-thirsty, finger chomping cannibal.
Raw opens with a bang, but moves into a more gradual build as we follow Justine, played by Garance Marillier, leaving home for the first time and entering veterinary school. Dropped off on campus by her vegetarian parents, we soon learn that her dietary choice is a family affair as her older sister and upperclassman at the school, Alexia also subscribes to a plant-based diet. Yet Alexia is of little help to her little sister navigating life here since the two have a blossoming sibling rivalry. On her own Justine is left to explore her own coming of age, like many college students do. In addition to a sexual relationship with her otherwise gay, male roommate, Justine’s college “experimentation” turns out to be gastronomical as well.
The hazing rituals at this veterinary school are horrific on their own and put to shame anything American frat boys have to offer. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that learning to be a veterinarian is inherently gross. Much of the possible puke inducing scenes from this film come early on as students must dissect dogs, inseminate a horse and remove an impacted poo from a sad cow. My guess is if your classwork is this intense you really must up the hazing game in order to get a reaction. As a first-year student, Justine is subject to a barrage of sadistic rituals including having all the contents of her dorm room dumped out the window in the middle of the night, as well as being doused with buckets of animal blood in between all night basement raves. Yet this is nothing compared to what’s coming when the upperclassmen force the freshmen to eat raw rabbit kidneys. Justine begs her sister to help her get a reprieve from the meat-eating, but Alexia is unsympathetic, revealing that she has already forgone her vegetarianism in favor of peer pressure and eaten the meat when it was her turn to do so.
The taste of meat sets off a metamorphosis for young Justine that takes many twist and turns, some of these twists being in my stomach. She has an allergic reaction to the meat, which causes a skin crawling rash all over her body, but is soon downing handfuls of raw chicken straight from the refrigerator. Without giving too much more away and ruining the shock, Justine finds a unique way to satisfy her budding man-sized munchies.
While hearty genre fans might be hungry for more on-screen blood and gore in Raw, reportedly an early screening of the film at the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival caused several audience members to pass out. Rarely does a film live up to such headlines, and hype although I must admit I was excited to see if it did. This is a classic publicity ploy by promoters of Grindhouse flicks back in the day during the height of 1970’s shock cinema. Low budget films would attempt to put butts in seats by claiming moviegoers left in ambulances, their fright fests were just that freaky. This doesn’t seem to be the case as Ducaurnau was startled that anyone had such a reaction to her film (or so she wants us to believe!)
The visuals, tension and realness in Raw may induce viewers to put themselves in Justine’s position and think about what it really be like to eat human flesh. While many genre films are so far removed from the realm of possibility that the audience has no connection to the horror, the thought has at least crossed everyone’s mind at one point in their lives: hey what does human flesh taste like?
The late, great Hannibal television series on NBC made it appear as if Dr. Lecter was preparing a meal for the Food Network or a spread in GQ on the dining habits of hipster serial killers. While Justine won’t be appearing in Martha Stewart Living anytime soon, I can see how the rawness of the cannibalism depicted in this film could connect with moviegoers on a level that would make them faint or vomit. Real horror hounds can keep their barf bags at home (despite the fact a movie theater in Los Angeles gave them out to patrons), but that’s not to say there aren’t a few moments that could make the average viewer queasy.
I love intense, stomach-churning “body horror” and the French horror scene has turned out some truly grotesque and challenging titles for even the most hardened gore freaks. Over the past decade or so films like Martyrs, Inside and High Tension have delivered blood-soaked depravity married to the visions of truly skilled directors. The French have been able to elevate twisted subject matter from the depths of campy B-movie, midnight screening fodder into artistic displays of human suffering. I highly recommend watching Raw, perhaps pairing it with a bottle of Chianti as it is a worthy addition to this buffet of butchering.