Raw, the critically acclaimed French-Belgian movie written and directed by Julie Ducournau is described on many sites as a “cannibal” themed horror movie, but while that’s literally what happens in the movie, it’s as much about cannibalism as the Antonia Bird movie Ravenous was back in 1997. Human flesh may be consumed here, but this is what Stephen King would call a vampire movie, using his archetypical definition in Danse Macabre, his fine non-fiction look at the horror genre.
Unlike in Ravenous, the consuming of human flesh in Raw doesn’t provide superhuman abilities, but it’s a lot closer to fantasy than it is to movies like The Green Inferno that depict cannibalism in the rituals of primitive peoples, albeit in exploitative fashion, or in the survival drama Alive, based on the true story of the 1972 Andes air crash, in which surviving members of a Uruguayan rugby team were faced with the choice of either consuming parts of the corpses around them, or dying of starvation. Compared to that level of human drama, Raw, while a well made movie, slides closer to the exploitation side of the scale in how it chooses to depict the choice to eat human flesh as some kind of hereditary feature, rather than a depraved choice that’s not essential to survival.
But the movie is more than just about eating body parts, it’s also a mostly obvious tale of the mill that young people are ground under when they go to college, before emerging from their first year in the second stage in their development towards adulthood. When I saw obvious, I also say that it’s pretty close to how the first year of college can be, especially when staying on or near campus. It isn’t an experience that I can say I’m familiar with. Other than a brief spell when I lived with a group of friends, I stayed at home while I attended college, and commuted to the campus, something that was pretty common back in the UK, and maybe still is. I have second hand experience of it, though – my daughter moved to a neighbouring state to attend college, and I’ve heard enough from her about the kind of activities she got up to during those four years, and seen enough movies, to get a good feel for what that kind of college experience is like.
The movie is set in France. The protagonist, Justine, begins her first year at veterinary school and is immediately subjected to a nightmarish hazing episode on her first night, when all first year students’ bedrooms are raided by a masked gang, and forced outside to crawl in the darkness in the various states of undress they happened to be in at the time. The destination is a bumpin party, and the masked intruders are revealed as older students. Justine is a real wallflower this early in the movie, but comes from a family of excellent students, something which purportedly intimidates even the faculty. We also learn in the first act that Justine’s older sister Alexia is already attending the school, and the differences between the sisters is a gulf between them. As in all coming of age movies, Justine will either remain the cautious, studious one, or she’ll transform throughout the year to become like the elder. In the movie, the transitional stage is triggered by one of the key parts of the hazing; the eating of a raw rabbit kidney. It’s worth noting that it’s established earlier in the movie that Justine’s family are vegetarians.
This plot point is what leads to the major plot of the movie; that Justine is overcome with growing cannibalistic urges, even as she transitions from a shy and bookish disposition to the party hearty attitude common in colleges the world over, and while some of the scenes are pretty raw themselves in their candor (Justine gets a clumsy Brazilian by her older sister in one scene, in another, Alexia tries to teach Justine how to pee standing up), they’re a refreshing departure from US and British movies that are more afraid to show how people actually live and act, than they are to depict scenes of brutality and gore. It’s a coming of age movie for sure, but without the parallel emergence of Justine’s cannibalistic trait, the generic party scenes that show her social development are hollow and cliché. Is it possible that some wallflowers go into college and somehow become adults without the partying? Is it possible that kids who spent high school partying go into college and are transformed into sober-minded adults? I’m going to say sure, but dude, how boring would that be to watch in a movie, amirite?
It sounds like I don’t have a lot of love for the movie, but I did mostly like it. I enjoyed the growth of the dynamic between Justine and Alexia, from big sister-little-sister to peers, I liked how the same events that bring them closer also have destructive consequences. I wish that Ducournau had taken more narrative risks than rather just cleave to movie-college tropes. Maybe college really is nothing but a four year drunken hookup fest punctuated by lectures and homework, but I’d like to think there’s more to it than that. There’s something about the movie that feels unbalanced, and I think it’s the banality of the college scene colliding with the bizarre theme, which, while it isn’t exactly supernatural, tiptoes along the edge of it by making the cannibalism some kind of unknown biological necessity.
I read a headline back in March about how the cannibalism is allegorical to college life chewing up and spitting out the innocent mind of youth, but after seeing Raw, that’s a crude but simultaneously over-complex analysis of the movie. Kids mostly go into college when they’re already mature enough to cope with the experience; modern society, and the media prepares them for it by the time the teen years come around. Raw doesn’t really say anything deep or insightful about the college experience, and if it was ever Ducournau’s intent to try, the bizarre cannibalistic horror slant buries it. Raw is a decent and different horror movie that deserves to just be judged on that alone, but it’s nothing more than that.
© Andrew Hope, 2017