France has a rich history of horror. There’s the sadomasochistic novels of the Marquis de Sade as well as the blood and guts of Grand Guignol theatre. In cinema, the horror lineage runs deep. There’s Georges Méliès’ shorts and trick films (The Haunted Castle , The Four Troublesome Heads ); the eye-slicing of Salvador Dalí and Luis Buñuel’s Un chien andalou (1929); Georges Franju’s nauseating documentary on slaughterhouses, Blood of the Beasts (1949), as well as his clinical and poetic Eyes Without a Face (1960); there’s Henri-Georges Clouzot’s nasty Diabolique (1955); and the rotting poetry of Jean Rollin’s collective work. Flash forward a few decades, to the mid-1990s and 2000s, where we find the intense and brutal "New French Extremity" films by Philippe Grandrieux, Bruno Dumont, Gaspar Noé, Marina de Van, and others. And there are the genre filmmakers creating work around the same time as the more arthouse Extremity crowd—films like High Tension (2003), Fronteire(s) (2007), Inside (2007), and Martyrs (2008). Since then, in the 2010s, few French horror films have made a critical impact on an international level. This is where Julia Ducournau’s Raw stumbles in to fill the void.
Ducournau’s film is self-satisfied with its paradoxical and oxymoronic premise: a vegetarian cannibal movie in which a veggie acquires a taste for flesh. Discounting a TV movie and a short, Raw is Ducournau’s first film. It’s a bit flashy and a bit unfocused. It’s a first film. Justine (Garance Marillier) follows in her family’s footsteps. Like her parents, she’s a vegetarian. Like her parents, she attends a veterinarian school, one secluded somewhere in the French provinces. As an incoming freshman, she endures, like the rest of her classmates, cruel hazing rituals that include: raving in underwear, eating raw meat, and, in a nod to Carrie (1976), wearing a lab coat stained with the animal blood that upperclassmen dropped. Justine stands out at the school. She’s smart and awkward, a deadly combination. She makes one friend, her gay roommate Adrien (Rabah Nait Oufella). She reconnects with her older sister, Alex (Ella Rumpf), wizened to the protocols and appropriate behavior to display at school. Alex adopts a let-me-show-you-the-way attitude towards Justine, revealing to her who she truly is in a film that is about a few undeveloped ideas—dietary needs, sexual identity, behavior.
Whether it’s wide or close-up—Ducournau alternates between the two—shots are clipped. During an introduction at a recent “Rendez-Vous with French Cinema” screening at New York's Film Society at Lincoln Center, Ducournau talked about how efficiency isn’t a bad word. Where she sees efficiency, I see scenes that are streamlined, smoothing out and pulling up emotional beats.
Raw is torn between being an abstract and lyrical film, and one that’s more psychologically grounded and character-driven. These aren’t mutually exclusive formal and narrative choices, but the film poses them as if they were. At first, Raw builds a world, chronicling the social parameters and circumstances that Justine is ensconced in, only to sweep them aside for episodes of light Grand Guignol—sliced and chewed appendages feature prominently. On the other hand, Raw is dreamlike at times. I don’t think I’ll forget the brief self-contained image of a restrained horse trotting on a treadmill—recalling Eadweard Muybridge’s The Horse in Motion (1878)—anytime soon. And yet, abetting Raw’s piecemeal feel is Jim Williams’ scattershot score that is, at times, classical, vaguely industrial, and at one moment, pop. It even gooses you with blaring volume concurrent with crucial moments of sex and violence. Patchy, a mixture of semi-successful parts, Raw belongs with Saverio Costanzo’s Hungry Hearts (2014): meat-free films with no flavor.