For the first time in years, a French horror film made some serious headlines again. Julia Ducourneau's Raw [Grave] enjoyed reports of people fainting, throwing up and leaving the theater prematurely. Hell, there were even stories about heart attacks. I finally caught up with the film and I have to say that it didn't disappoint. Is it as crazy as the hype promises? Of course not, then again the film was never intended to become a renowned shocker. So go in with an open mind and prepare yourself for a nice slice of French unease.
People going in expecting a film matching the likes of Inside or Martyrs are sure to leave disappointed. While there is definitely some graphic content and Ducournau never shies away from showing what needs to be shown, the film doesn't set out to scare or gross out its audience. Raw is a darker, more unsettling kind of horror. It's more interested in presenting a world that's overtly disturbing while sharing a feeling of tension and unease that keeps its viewers on edge.
Raw is a film about the blossoming sexuality of a young university student, only it's disguised as a mix of coming of age and cannibalism. It doesn't really blend in with the French horror films of the '00s, instead if feels more like a crossover between Fabrice du Welz and the Dardennes. Raw has in fact a very Walloon feel to it (a solemn bleakness combined with splash of dark comedy), maybe not all that surprising knowing that the film is in fact a French/Belgian coproduction. So if you're looking for references, films like Alléluia and Small Gods should give a much better idea of what to expect.
The film follows Justine during her first week at vet college. She may be one of the brightest students of her year, but she has a hard time fitting into her new environment. The fact that she's being hazed quite thoroughly isn't exactly helping to improve her mood either. Things get worse when she's forced to eat raw rabbit liver (she was brought up a vegetarian) and ends up with a terrible rash. Even so, that first bite of raw meat awakens a dormant longing in Justine, who finds it increasingly difficult to suppress her urges.
Ducounrau joined forces with Ruben Impens (Broken Circle Breakdown) to give her film the necessary visual flair. While Impens does a commendable job, I think cinematographers like Debie, Dacosse or Karakatsanis could've brought something extra to the table. Impens does a great job at capturing the somewhat dim and gloomy setting of the campus and its surroundings, but when things get a bit craftier (like the party scenes or the paint scene) there's a lingering wish for a little more visual oomph. Raw doesn't look bad by any means, it's just that there's some untapped potential there that could've given the film that extra push.
The score does go that extra mile though. Ducounrau isn't shy to let the music take over and let it dictate the rhythm of a scene. One of the film's core moments is built entirely around Orties - Plus Putes que toutes les Putes, a rather dark and gritty hip-hop/electronic cross-over track that Justine is listening to when she finally gives in to her inhibitions. It's scenes like these that define the film and it's nice to see that Ducounrau understands the importance of a great soundtrack when building up these key moments.
Taking on the lead role is Garance Marillier. Marillier teamed up with Decournau before when working on Junior, a short film that marked the first steps into the film business for both. Marillier is still pretty new to film, but she really applied herself to what stands out as a difficult part and came out on top. Ella Rumpf too puts in solid performance as Justine's sister, but fans of European horror will be more delighted by the (albeit short) appearance of Laurent Lucas (Marc Stevens in Calvaire) as Justine's dad. Definitely was a nice little touch, even though his part is pretty limited.
While the wild stories about people fainting appear grossly overstated, there is definitely a certain harshness to Raw that many people will find hard to stomach. It's not about scaring people's socks off or making things super gruesome, instead there's a more realistic sense of horror that runs underneath the film. It's like that feeling you get when you drive past a car crash (also a direct reference in the film). A mix of dread and unease that's scarier than any horror film out there, because in some weird way it hits much closer to home. It may not satisfy commercial horror fans or hardcore gorehounds, but it doesn't make it any less horrific.
Raw is a great film for a director just starting out in the business. Ducournau not only showed that she's a very capable director, she also demonstrated the ability to bring something new and unique to the table. Coining that second film will still be a challenge I think, as Raw developed into something beyond the immediate control of Ducournau, but the talent is definitely there. For now though, Raw is an easy recommend if you like horror cinema in a broader sense of the word, just keep your expectation in check and you'll be fine.