Raw ★★★★★

Raw (Grave) by Julia Ducournau

“Do you think I'm weird?”

“I don’t think auteur and genre should be separate. For me, an auteur is just someone who has a very strong personal vision, and who knows how to communicate it.” French director Julia Ducournau's statement drives straight into one of the central issues of the French film industry which has made it something of a trademark to put foreign directors on a pedestal, as journalist Peter Debruge describes it, while ignoring or dismissing their own film industry apart from the occasional comedy or mainstream drama. Her film Raw is something of an oddity in many ways within the film industry of her home country considering its blend of horror and coming-of-age drama, a unique vision to refer to her statement above, which has been met with rather peculiar reactions.

By the time the reports of people fainting during screenings of Raw and how paramedics had to be called to attend these viewers Raw had gained a reputation as one of the “goriest film” ever made. For Ducournau these reports have drawn a misleading picture of her film making it a title in the same realm as Cannibal Holocaust or The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, to film which have been somewhat inspirations but to which her film has no link apart from the theme of cannibalism. However, in contrast to these works Raw does not treat the cannibal as someone who is part of “them”, as she says, but rather as “I”, as part of society showing how society handles these people who are no longer geographically or physically detached from them.

Raw is a film about “what it means to be human” like all of the director's previous films, it is a film about identity, sexuality and finding your place in the world. While not the “goriest film ever” it is certainly a disturbing tale about discovering disquieting truths about yourself and how one deals with them.

16-year-old Justine (Garance Marillier) follows her sister Alexia's (Ella Rumpf) footsteps when her parents enroll her at a prestigious veterinary school. Even though her status as a rookie makes her a nearly constant victim for pranks, rituals and other humiliating tasks given by the seniors she slowly finds her place within the school. However, when she has to eat meat as part of one of the rituals the lifelong vegetarian is more than just shocked, devastated by her sister's lack of support since she does not step in and rather forces her to participate in order to fit in with the others.

The small piece has awakened Justine's lust for meat who is unable to control herself as she starts stealing burgers from the canteen or eats raw chicken from her roommate's fridge. After an accident involving someone being hurt Justine finds her lust for meat has an even more disturbing nature.

We see a country road. The long shot reveals a small figure appearing on the side of the road, possibly a hitchhiker or a wanderer as it seems. Other than him or her there is no one else on the road, no cars, no animals in sight until suddenly the person stops and waits. We hear the sound of a car approaching fast and before we know what some part of our body has already realized the person steps forward into the road and in front of the car. The vehicle swerves to the side crashing ultimately into a tree.

The cinematic language of Ducournau, if Raw is an indicator, is one of immediacy, a beginning right into the gut of her viewer, images which reveal very little at first while at the same time appealing to a sense of realization one has had all the time as the first figures and shapes appeared on screen. Much like a similar film this year, Nicolas Pesce's The Eyes of My Mother, the full dimension, the much darker context of the opening images will be revealed later on drawing a much larger picture, extending our understanding of the world and the characters which we have spent something over an hour with at that point in the film.

Additionally, Ducournau and DOP Ruben Impens already hint at a certain tradition of horror cinema, one which the director already had in mind as suggested by her statements in the promotional interviews for her film. There is an audiovisual balance between life and death carrying the film and its characters, for example with their training as veterinarians prolonging or saving animal lives while being exposed to death at the same time. We hear a long, and quite heated discussion between Justine and one of her lab partners about the value of life, whether a monkey suffers through the same sort of trauma when being abused than a human. Justine maintains how suffering equals suffering no matter if we are talking about an animal or a human defining an important realization for viewer and her character, one which has to do with a certain detachment towards death, something which is part of life and cannot be hidden. Nevertheless, since Justine has been denied to make her choice – with her mother's overly caring, almost hysterical reaction to a piece of sausage on her daughter's plate – she decides to at least make the experience herself, perhaps the first conscious, independent decision she has made.

The most disturbing aspect of Raw is not the cannibalism but rather how the film does not allow its viewer to maintain a distance to the events depicted on screen. When the images of the opening shot are later repeated the handheld camera, use of medium and close up-shots, which have defined the movie thus far, close in on the characters, the images they see, the experiences they make. Cannibalism and the linked savagery is not exclusive to Amazonian tribes or Texas hillbillies but is happening in our midst, everybody is tainted as the shots of the rookies covered in animal's blood suggest and has to take part in the carnage already happening. One may discuss how one's choice is about how far you want to go, sounding out one's options between sexual freedom or hedonism, in the end one will devour meat one way or the other, either metaphorically or direct.

Thus it is interesting to see how Ducournau's script designs the macrocosm of the students, a world which seems to function outside society's law. The apartment complex, the open spaces and bloody rituals reminiscent of images of Aztecan sacrificial ceremonies or semi-religious sects seem to represent a system, one which a new member has to be born into through christening by blood. One needs to compare the shots of the young students before and after their trial period, the quite literal moment of awakening as the see the world like a new born, with new eyes and quite possibly a new set of rules. However, it is a system which also works on the principles of rejection and oppression since Justine has to hide her dark desire provocatively asking whether this is the human thing to do.

Raw is a disturbing coming-of-age story with horror elements, one which will garb a hold of it viewer and not let go. Without shying away from the possible interpretations and violence of her characters' actions Ducournau and her team have managed to create one of the most intense experiences of cinema this year (and possibly fro some time to come). Above all, this is a brave story about our way of defining humanity, as Ducournau proposes in the aforementioned interviews, but also questioning a society's means of rejection and acceptance, the branding of something as barbaric since the idea of normality has changed a long time ago to give way to a rather hypocritical double standard.

Sources:
1) Debruge, Peter (2017) 10 Directors to Watch: Julia Ducournau Reveals 'Raw' Side of French Cinema
variety.com/2017/film/features/10-directors-to-watch-julia-ducournau-raw-1201951390/, last accessed on : 10/30/2017
2) Shephard, Jack (2017) Raw director Julia Ducournau talks humanity, cannibals, and fainting
www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/films/features/julia-ducournau-interview-raw-director-cannibalism-humanity-fainting-sick-a7658651.html, last accessed on: 10/30/2017
3) www.youtube.com/watch?v=wrbUcmMmDkk, last accessed on: 10/30/2017

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