*Beware: Here be mild spoilers for Raw*
During my time blogging about all things horror, I’ve found that most serious horror fans by and large stick to their favorite horror subgenres. They may only dapple in other subgenres, occasionally dipping a toe into art horror or zombie flicks, but not often. I do this. I love moody, tense psychological horror, ghost stories, and taut thrillers with elegant displays of horrific violence. Slashers? Not really my thing. The Saw movies? Ehhh, pass. And body horror? Definitely not my thing.
For some reason, body horror is particularly challenging for me. Thus, I avoid it. This isn’t to say that I think body horror is bad or uncouth or less capable of artistic potential. I accept the importance of body horror as a subgenre that is, at times, most-equipped to explore themes like mortality, physical weakness, aging and disease, over-population, and the disconnect between our mental power and our bodily strength. After all, body horror is the most universal kind of horror, since everyone is stuck in a decaying body and marches through a field of pain and pleasure towards death.
There are times when even I can’t look away from a well-done, brilliant body horror film, when even I have to admit that I really, really liked it.
This is how I felt about Raw, a 2016 French-Belgian cannibalism and coming of age horror film that made waves at Cannes last year and was finally released stateside a few weeks ago.
Titled Grave in its native French, Raw was written and directed by Julia Ducournau. It stars Garance Marillier as Justine, young woman whose first year at college proves bloody and disastrous. When the film opens, Justine’s staunchly vegetarian parents have just dropped her off at their old veterinarian school, where Justine will join her sister Alexia (Ella Rumpf) in the family profession. Justine, already an introverted loner, doesn’t make it through her first night before the upperclassmen start the infamous and detailed year-long hazing ritual. If Justine can make it through the year, she will have officially earned the respect of her peers. If not, she will never be accepted.
Most American audiences will recognize the hazing rituals. Justine is pulled from her bed in the dead of night without being allowed to dress. She and her classmates, including her best friend/gay roommate-with-benefits Adrien (Rabah Naït Oufella) are subjected to a serious of humiliating trials. They are made to crawl like animals to a late-night underground rave, adhere to an arbitrary dress code with humiliating consequences, and forced eat raw rabbits’ brains after being doused in blood. The latter is a pivotal moment, one that awakens something hungry and ravenous within Justine. It starts with a sickening rash and evolves into something more…voracious. Justine quickly realizes that fitting in with her classmates and finishing her studies are not her biggest problems.
Raw is honest to goodness body horror, some of the best I’ve seen in a long time. Granted, I’m no body horror expert, but I’ve seen enough to know the difference between good and bad. Body horror done right is provocative and challenging and iconic nightmare fuel, like David Cronenberg’s The Fly or Brian Yuzna’s Society. Body horror done wrong is just gross and lazy.
That’s because body horror is all about context. When a body horror movie lacks solid writing or proper characterization, it becomes a special-effects gross-off and forsakes all potential for true horror.
For example, I will forever remember Raw as the movie that put me off buffalo chicken wings. I know that sounds ridiculous (it is), but I will never forgive Julia Ducournau for that.
Let me explain.
Buffalo wings are, or were, my jam. It all started in college. After getting sloshed on $3 Long Island Ice Teas at The Library on Sixth Street in Austin, my friends and I would go for wings at Pluckers in West Campus. Then we would go back to the apartment to eat wings and drunkenly watch 80s slashers. It was a magical time! And it was a magical food! Spicy and fried and smothered in ranch dressing? Perfection!
And Ducournau ruined it by inviting a revolting and eye-opening comparison to cannibalism. I don’t want to give away too much, so just believe me when I say that Raw’s notorious “bikini wax” scene is the most difficult scene to watch, featuring a waxing gone horribly, terribly wrong. When someone loses a body part, Justine eats it in a way that immediately reminded me of eating buffalo wings. It was like she is eating a buffalo wing. She eats that finger like I ear buffalo wings. IT DESTROYED ME.
It is such a cunning trick. By depicting Justine as gingerly nibbling on her sister’s finger rather than going at it like a zombie, Raw forced an uncomfortable comparison to the way any member of the audience eats. It called up some of my physical memories of eating, thereby hijacking my brain and bringing me psychologically into Justine’s first true act of cannibalism. I could not help but think of eating a finger, and it made me uncontrollably queasy.
So yeah, that happened.
Raw is not just a gross movie. It is a very crafted, precise movie. It takes time to draw each of the main characters, especially Justine. I personally identified a lot with Justine, since so much of her appeals to the shy, bookish nerd I never grew out of. Yet, Justine is not stereotypical or cheesy. She’s a real person. They all feel like real people. It would have been easy to forego the work necessary to create these whole, organic characters. But had Ducournau gone this route, she would have relegated Raw to a straightforward story about how peer pressure causes some sensitive types to act out. Her measured and daring approach, however, uses the insightful and searing performances to create a film that far exceeds a simple cautionary tale.
Raw is so much more than that. The film is about peer pressure and group dynamics, but it’s also about female lust, gender roles, and the loving but often fraught relationship between sisters. It’s about autonomy and sacrifice. It’s about sex, desire, attraction. It’s about losing and finding oneself in the most frightening of places. It’s about all the ways our loved ones can hurt us, and all the ways we allow them to do so. And all the ways we might refuse them.
There’s a lot going on in this movie.
I still ponder this film. I still endeavor to stitch it all together. I feel like I need to see it again, despite my general apprehension of body horror. The true genius of the film may be that it is inscrutable to my logical mind, and yet speaks directly to some dark, neglected part of my psyche. To be completely honest, I am not sure if the writing is as good as it could have been. The cinematography was very strong and quite striking in certain scenes. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that the film was “pretty,” though there were several frames that made me want to pause the movie so I could fully examine them.
I don’t know if taking time to examine frames would have done any good. The different themes and plot points created such a vivid yet enigmatic story. It did not seem to coalesce into a solid message. But then again, maybe it shouldn’t. I don’t think it was meant to. I was left with snatches of truth and moments of clarity in ways that reminded me of growing up. Life is this way.
This movie taught me a lot about myself as someone who consumes horror for both entertainment and art. Raw showed me how certain depictions of meaningful violence can get under my skin, versus depictions that lack emotional and psychological weight.
In general, I was very impressed by the sophisticated storytelling choices and clever filmmaking techniques. Not many movies have caused me to feel a reaction like Raw. That bikini-wax scene was appalling, but I recognize the skill there. It was fascinating and disgusting to experience my passive gaze transform into something closer to active participation.
Obviously, I loved the movie. Barring some superfluous, self-indulgent shots and less than regular pacing in parts (damn my American sensibilities!) I would not change much if given the chance. I thought it was an amazing noteworthy addition to the pantheon of French horror.
As for Raw and Ducournau’s influence on non-French horror, I am heartened and encouraged by the growing trend of horror movies that pay equal attention to story, structure, and sickening effects. It is possible to hit all those marks. Movies that hit those marks will continue to bring much to a field overcrowded with unimaginative and ineffective horror movies.