Ngaire Ruth finds a great many old tropes under the fresh blood of Raw, Julia Ducournau’s debut feature
No genre plays with sex and death better than the horror movie. This usually includes the spectacle of female hysteria, a trigger for curiosity, awe, fear and trepidation, reinforced in drama and literature since the Greeks invented the word (meaning, and cure) for hysteria. In The Bacchae, the Euripides play, the queen and her friends – celebrating the god of wine with a generous tipple – rip apart, in a bloodthirsty frenzy, a luckless boy who ambles, unknowingly, into the private party. Surprise! He turns out to be the queen’s own son.
If horror films are about releasing fear rather than inducing it, woman as perpetrator rather than victim should sell equally as well in the 21st century. And there’s a new girl in horror town: woman who kills with a merciless, cold, clear knowing, in the role of self-appointed vigilante and protector.
Taking its name from the last woman standing in slasher films, The Final Girls is a UK curatorial site that explores the intersections of horror and feminism. It announces: “as viewers better understand the horror genre and tropes within, we are making way for an era of more self-aware horror films, where the Final Girl can emerge from stereotypical constraints and even become the killer herself.” Last year The F-Word published the interview by The Final Girls’ Anna and Olivia with Matti Do, director of the first Lao horror film ever.
Raw is Julia Ducournau’s film debut as writer and director, and won the International Federation of Film Critics Award (IFOFCA) at Cannes 2016 and other awards. In contrast to the Final Girl or unforgiving heroine, Ducournau’s jolly tale of a placid vegetarian-turned-raging-cannibal young woman presents an unlikely bringer of death and destruction in Justine, played by Garance Marillier. Her character is more akin to the adolescent Carrie in the iconic horror film from 1976.
Justine leaves a sheltered life, as well as dominating mother (Joana Preiss), father (Laurent Lucas) and the family dog, to join her sophomore sister Alexia, played by Ella Rumpf, at the vet school. Bullied by Alexia, Justine eats a rabbit’s liver during a hazing rite of passage ritual, which starts her on a journey of cannibalistic discovery.
The two women dominate screen time. Justine’s pallor and inquisitive expression is the salt to Alexia’s pepper, with her dark skin and hair, and a stare to melt mountains. Their relationship is an emotional rollercoaster of loyalty and betrayal, love and hate, swinging from cherished moments of sisterly fun to outright Faustian behaviour. The performances clearly follow close direction, but totally engage; my favourite scene is when the two sisters attempt to piss standing up during a re-bonding drinking session on a rooftop. The setting reflects the storyline in the looming brutalist architecture of the expansive concrete university.
The daytime activities of the veterinary students, like getting covered in blood and excrement and sticking their hands in hot, messy parts of distressed animals, are a useful backdrop for horror too. The sight of a horse being prepared for surgery—a powerful, graceful animal helplessly straddled upside down above a wet, concrete floor—interrupted by a huge medical hose simply stuck down its throat, absent of thought and compassion, is more terrifying than watching Justine tucking into a juicy human finger with glee. She looks like she needs the protein.
Theatrical staging (movement and mime) is complemented by cinematography (tonal lighting, shadows and shapes cast over panoramic views). Together with sudden cuts to interior party scenes, a hedonistic blend of pumping electronic music and drugs, the film makes for compelling, albeit sometimes exhausting viewing. In the opening scenes, half-asleep first years are dragged from their beds, soaked in cold water, forced to get on their hands and knees and like an ant army navigate dirty stairwells and endless corridors.
There is wit, accidental humour and joy in some of the clever details. For example, the girls don’t have a surname: a matriarch runs this family. The parents don’t have personal names, and are always referred to as La Mère and Le Père, even in the credits. Real people, not some fantasy or mythical characters, lick eyeballs and eat raw living human flesh.
The film is both fascinating and confusing. It seems it wants to be a hybrid, perhaps an art film playing with the horror genre, and mostly succeeds. The film’s changing attitude to the audience’s ability to infer and deduce is what makes it sometimes confusing, and causes the occasional giggle from filmgoers. It’s so serious in its pursuit of aesthetic pleasure presented as gritty reality – with the elements of psychological thriller threaded through – you almost feel that someone will tell you off if you are caught laughing aloud.
The assumption that Raw tries to dig deep into the complex state of humanity and seeks greater things than freaking people out is reinforced as it echoes something ancient and looming, like a Greek tragedy. Disappointingly, it gives us nothing new in respect of challenging stereotypes, as with The Final Girl. Justine’s murderous state of being is not a choice of the mind but the focus of the body, and in the end defines the woman she is and will be. Her only resolution comes from knowing that she has to keep it a secret in order for the world to continue to turn in its ordinary way: there’s nothing refreshing about that perspective.
But the film also outs a very modern non-gender specific fear. Sometimes the only thing we can control is what we eat, but what if what we eat and how we eat it triggers irreversible change? And, is it a personal choice at all? Is it a symptom? Is it chronic? This is new and unsettling.
As the co-production of meaning includes the audience, it’s obvious that some viewers will interpret Justine as a victim of her sexuality, perhaps seeing her discovering some kind of beast within – not the beautiful, inspired creature that Ducournau sees. The spectacle of female hysteria and its relationship to sexuality is back in the room. A concept that will have us all locked back up in the attic if we’re not careful.
RAW is still playing in UK cinemas.
All images taken from the film’s official website.
1. A young person, perhaps a woman, is lying under a blueish sheet in a foetal position, with their eyes shut and looking distressed, as if hiding from something.
2. Two young people, a man with a shaved head and a woman with shoulder long dark hair, are sitting at a long desk as if in a lab or a study room. They’re wearing white lab coats soaked in red substance, which may be blood. The man’s head is also covered in this substance. The man seems deep in thought and the woman is looking at him as if expecting him to say something.
3. Two dark-haired young women wearing sweaters and outdoor jackets are fighting, tugging each other’s arms and trying to bite each other’s hands. One of them has blood on her face.