Raw (2016) Dir. Julia Ducournau, France/Belgium, 99 mins
French horror has always had rather a special place in my heart – regular readers of my Film Gutter series will have seen me rave about brilliant movies such as Martyrs and Irreversible, both of which remain top ten all-time movies for me. There are plenty of other pieces from the New French Extremity well worthy of mention – honestly too many to list here – so when whispers of Raw started to reach my ears, I was pretty excited about this one. With a trailer that looked extremely stylish, and a burgeoning reputation as very visceral and shocking – apparently one screening in Sweden lost thirty viewers throughout the running time, including two people who fainted – this was a movie I was buzzing to see.
I had a vague sense of the content, without any specific idea of what the story was or how it would really unfold. Our story centres on Justine, a young vegetarian girl about to start Veterinary College and join her older sister in the teaching programme. She's a relatively shy and quiet type – quite the opposite to her loud, outgoing sibling – and further education certainly presents a challenge. The older students relentlessly haze the new recruits, throwing blood over them at the school photo and forcing the 'rookies' to eat raw rabbit kidney as part of the initiation.
It's this moment that sparks a huge change in Justine's life, as her first taste of meat sends her spiralling into a nightmarish world of cannibalism. As the story wears on her cravings become worse and worse, as does her general outlook and behaviour, going from a very innocent teen to a much more mature and sexually aware woman. In many respects, it's a coming of age tale, framed against a dark story and the tale of a dysfunctional family relationship. It's one of those that – despite the shadowy framings of the movie – wouldn't necessarily fit everyone's remit of what a horror film would be. There are only a few moments that genuinely carry anything truly disturbing – although the bar may be set a bit higher in that area – and many moments of the plot are more intimated than they are actually shown.
There were a few films this put me in mind of, all in different ways. There was the darkly transformative element of something like Thanatomorphose or Contracted, blended with the cannibalistic angle of Jimmy Weber's Eat. It follows a similar sort of journey, but in many respects stopped short of the boundaries all three of those movies were willing to cross. On a personal level, that was a disappointment, given the language used to describe the movie beforehand – 'visceral', 'shocking', 'disturbing' – compared to much of what has come before I considered it pretty mild.
On the upside, it is indisputably nicely shot and the performances are generally very strong. But as a milieu I think there are movies that have done it better – all three of the aforementioned included. The story plods along rather than going at a really good pace, the whole set-up of student hazing was irritating – just genuinely annoying for me on a personal level, as well as feeling overdone and unrealistic – and when the movie came to an end I was left with a thought of 'was that it'? Usually you can feel a film cranking up towards a powerful crescendo, whereas Raw just seems to fizzle out with a 'twist' that was presaged so early on it was hard to muster up any real surprise. I barely ever pick up a surprise ending, but I had this one pegged from very early on.
As is so often the case, the films that really get the hype in a given year are – perhaps – not the ones that live up to that hype. Many great films sneak under the radar practically unheralded, whilst other suddenly explode through word of mouth upon release. It's entirely possible that all the buzz and excitement has set the bar for Raw simply too high, at least in my own mind – I wanted this to be brilliant, mindblowing, spectacular. And don't get me wrong, Raw is good – but that's about as far as I can go. And, given everything that I had expected, that still feels like a little bit of a let-down.
RATING: 5.5/10. The nearest thing I can compare this film to in terms of an experience is It Follows – a movie I was buzzing for, a movie I had bigged up to people before even seeing, a movie that I wanted to be superb. Those of you who've read my review of It Follows will know it was a major personal letdown, and a film I've never seen the fuss about. Raw is better than that, for sure, and is a more interesting come of age story that follows a better logic. However it's not as extreme as I expected, takes place in a deeply annoying and stereotypical environment and doesn't really every seem to go anywhere. Once you have the fundamental concept there's not a great deal of development from there, and the feeling when the credits rolled was rather underwhelming. It has a lot of visual style, and solid performances, but it's not for me a worthy successor to so many of the great French horror films that have come before it.