“And that’s why, I think it’s weird that all French films are set in tower blocks.”
I await the certainly forthcoming adulation from the other people at the table. I may have forgotten their names but I am certain they enjoyed my improvised lecture about French cinema. They sit there, stunned for a moment, presumably intimidated by my expertise. The chatter in the coffee shop fills the silence at our table.
The man opposite me blinks a few times and then turns to the woman to his left.
“So, do you want to get some food here or…?” He asks her with some very strange head jerking motions.
She picks up a menu and scans it with the intensity of someone trying to avoid something, but what?
“Hmm,” She tilts her head, “Maybe there’s somewhere else? This place doesn’t really have any vegetarian options.”
“I didn’t know you were a veggie,” The bearded man to my left says in a slightly judgemental tone, “You were eating chicken wings at Sarah’s barbeque last week”
“I’m not a Veggie,” she whispers the word, almost ashamed of it, “It’s just since they legalised, y’know, you don’t know what’s just meat and what’s, y’know.”
“Well, I don’t see the problem with it, those people wanted to be eaten,” I say authoritatively, “You’re just being squeamish”
A few more moments of silence pass as they each, presumably, re-evaluate their stance on the matter.
“Well, I’m getting tired, so I might…” The young woman trails off into a very obviously fake yawn; one of these two must be making her uncomfortable.
“Me too, I think.”, agrees the second man.
“Yeah, it’s getting late,” mumbles the first, looking at his watch. It’s only four thirty, what a baby, “We’ll see you around then, er- Sam, was it?”
The two men almost trip over each other following her out the door. Pathetic – I think to myself. I’ll stay here with my coffee and this rather delicious, chewy brownie. Something hard falls into my lap as I take a bite: A painted finger nail. It’s probably a fake one from whoever cooked it. Yeah, definitely. I put the plate back down on the table. I stop chewing and for some reason a cold shiver rattles down my spine. I don’t really want the rest of that brownie, anyway. Not if they can’t even be bothered to wear gloves to cook things around here.
I have now written the first sentence of this review in various forms, maybe two dozen times. The problem is: I don’t really know where to start. Do we talk about the good or the bad? Or try to approach the whole thing at once? I guess we’ll just have to tackle it together. Now take my hand and let me take you on a magical adventure into the world of veterinary school and cannibalism.
The film opens as Justine (Garance Marillier), accompanied by her parents, is heading to her first day of veterinary school. Her parents drop her in the university car park and she begins her new life as a student of animal medicine. Now, here, I feel the need to take a sidebar and explain one of the problems I have this film and how it may not be a problem for other people.
University hazing. What the hell is up with that? Is it just me or does it occur to anyone else that if you are rudely awoken by masked idiots and dragged into the corridor of your student accommodation and it is clear that your assailants are just other students, why is anyone complacently going along with their plan of forcing you single-file down a corridor to who knows what? I cannot be the only person who finds this wholly objectionable and unacceptable. Maybe, it is because my truncated stint at University never included staying in student halls or joining some faceless group of privileged idiots or maybe it’s because of me just being a generally contrary and uncooperative person but I would be telling them, in the nicest possible way, to fuck right off. This created the problem for me as seeing the main character being pushed around and not standing up for herself meant I didn’t really have much sympathy for her. Maybe it was to demonstrate her passive nature or her unwillingness to stand out from the crowd (actually that is stated, outright, several times so that’s probably it) but I couldn’t get behind it. Now, this may not be a problem for you. Maybe, I should have more sympathy for the underdog but if it isn’t demonstrated that she’s even unhappy about being treated badly, it’s hard to identify with her. It could also be prejudiced by my own perspective as a loud, white man that generally makes my voice heard and means I can’t really appreciate the position of someone who feels unable to speak up. The hazing ritual also serves as the inciting incident of the film, so I guess they couldn’t really have done without it. Well, I’ve officially talked myself into a corner on this one. I don’t know what to think. You know what, let’s just forget this ever happened and get on with the review, eh?
Fair warning: There may be mild spoilers ahead but nothing that isn’t in the trailer.
Now, the trailer. This is an interesting one. I usually avoid trailers but I saw this one before another film and it was very interesting. It very cleverly re-contextualised the hazing (see above) as the character being forced into some kind of cannibalistic cult. This is not what happens in the film and I found it really satisfying when I realised that I’d been completely taken for a ride. Trailers often tell you too much about a film or at least make it look a lot more interesting than it is, but this one seemed to be out to intentionally mislead the viewer. Now, does credit belong to the film or the trailer for that? Filmmakers (apart from Zack Snyder) don’t make films just to have them become trailers, so, it’s interesting that they decided to have the trailer tell a completely different story to the film.
Anyway, the film, (stay on topic, Sam): Justine’s older sister Alexia (Ella Rumpf) is also enrolled at the veterinary school a year or two ahead of her. Alexia doesn’t seem particularly thrilled to have her little sister at school with her and doesn’t seem to want to help her or protect her from what’s happening, so I’m not really sure if I’m supposed to have sympathy for her either. In fact Alexia seems to take great pleasure in being part of the gang of senior students tormenting the new kids.
Justine is assigned a roommate, Adrien (Rabah Nait Oufella) and they quickly bond in the Stanford Prison Experiment that is their university. Their relationship is probably one of the most interesting in the film, taking a few twists and turns along the way.
The film moves at a pleasing pace, making sure each scene has something to say about the characters, even if the message might be obscured somewhat by clumsy imagery, and we are quickly introduced to the central theme: Justine seems to have a taste for human flesh. She comes round to it slowly and the film builds tension by linking her burgeoning cannibalism with her burgeoning sexuality. Raw is writer and director Julia Ducournau’s first major feature and it shows. The film looks beautiful. Every shot is beautifully composed, the infrequent but expertly placed and very subtle dream sequences are excellent but I couldn’t shake the feeling that whilst I liked almost every part of it, I was unsatisfied by the experience as a whole. Justine essentially goes through a Kafka-esque transformation but it is never clear what I’m supposed to think about it. Do I look on in horror at this monster, or do I marvel and quake at her new found power? It didn’t feel like a metaphor for her strength as woman because unless you ask some of the most objectionable people on the internet, a woman’s sexuality isn’t actually an all-consuming, Lovecraftian nightmare. At its worst it just feels like a series of very cool, very beautiful but essentially disconnected scenes. There was also the matter of how funny parts of it where. I laughed out loud a few times at some of the more absurd parts but it wasn’t clear that they were supposed to be funny. Genuinely, there were parts with perfect comedic timing but it also didn’t seem like the film knew it. You also never get a sense that her new taste for People Pieces™ is in any way beneficial. It felt there should have been some upside to her cannibalism, like suddenly having the confidence to start standing up for herself but she still seems, pretty much, just as passive as she was before, having to be lead by the hand at every step. Characters should be taking control of their path through the film not just because big Sis says so.
Also, can we issue a cease and desist on a couple of things:
1 – Nosebleeds as a signifier of internal-conflict/ distress / vampirism / growth / superpowers / transformation / something-or-other. It’s confused, it’s hackneyed and it’s bad.
2 – People sitting at the back of a party doing I’m-a-cool-moody-vampire-face at no-one. At best it adds nothing, at worst it makes your character look laughably juvenile. You’ll often see it in slow motion making it even more egregious.
I’m writing this a few days after having seen Raw and I have to say, despite my criticism, it’s growing on me. Whilst I was initially, quite unenthused, once I got a bit of space from it, I started seeing the clever set-up/pay-off and it became more satisfying in retrospect. The ending was excellent and whilst it was, overall, not a masterpiece, the sound and visuals were brilliantly executed even if it wasn’t exactly sure what it was trying to say all the time. The performances were good too. Nothing felt overacted and despite the young cast there was a maturity and restraint in what they did. Whether it was intentional or not, I never got a sense of the world outside of the school. Was that because I was supposed to feel enclosed within its walls or was it just something that was missing? I think that points to the central issue: It wasn’t always clear what was intentional and what wasn’t, which left me feeling slightly confused and unfortunately unsatisfied. I’ll be interested to see what Ducournau does next.
Raw might not be film of the year, but it is finger-licking good.
Review by Sam Rae
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