REVIEW: Grave [Raw] [2017]

Score: 8/10 | ★ ★ ★

Rating: R | Runtime: 99 minutes | Release Date: March 15th, 2017 (France)
Studio: Wild Bunch Distribution / Focus World
Director(s): Julia Ducournau
Writer(s): Julia Ducournau

“Two fingers will make it come up easier”

We strive to become ourselves in college thanks to that first taste of freedom after adolescence’s long haul packed tightly at home and within part-time jobs and/or classes alongside peers who simply don’t want to be there. This is when we’re able to let loose and buckle down simultaneously, acknowledging our unique personalities and drive to succeed at a vocation of our choosing. But this rite of passage is never completely devoid of expectations or outside pressures. Some must maintain grades for scholarship purposes. Some must still juggle that part-time job in order to pay tuition. And others may have legacies to uphold either by enrolling at a parent’s alma mater or following their footsteps towards a similar career. It’s a rite of passage to crave and fear.

Justine (Garance Marillier) believes she’s prepared for whatever comes her way in Julia Ducournau‘s feature length theatrical debut Raw. She’s a top student who could have gone anywhere, but a vegetarian lifestyle amongst dogs and veterinarian parents dictate her path. The same happened with older sister Alexia (Ella Rumpf) a year or two previously, herself already entrenched at the university where Mom (Joana Preiss) and Dad (Laurent Lucas) met. It’s both a comfort to know she’s excelled there despite not having the same bookish tendencies to keep her nose clean as Justine and a crutch towards discovering individuality removed from familiarity. At least none of them prepared the youngest for what to expect as a freshman so that the chaotic experience remains fresh for her and us alike.

What we see is ostensibly a giant fraternity consisting of the entire department without exception. If you want to make it to your first class you must watch your bed get thrown out the window the night before. You’ll have to engage in a hedonistic rave that’s seemingly faculty-approved and then discover your morning to be filled with mandatory rabbit kidney snacks and a Carrie-level pig’s blood coronation. It’s utter insanity and yet no one says a thing. Noncompliance equals being sent home, your face scratched off the class photo and your dreams of veterinary stardom extinguished. But if you let it all happen you can go about your day as though everything is normal. You sit in your class with bloodstained lab-coat and face, the adventure commenced.

This initiation is as wild for us as Justine because Ducournau supplies it without warning directly after knocking us off-kilter by a prologue depicting an unknown person running onto a road, causing a car crash, and ultimately approaching the smashed vehicle with scary determination. She contrasts that quiet sequence of deliberate destruction without context or culmination against a wholesome young co-ed eating mashed potatoes with her parents. This lunch is so over-the-top pure that Mom chastises the lunch-lady for giving her daughter a stray meatball amongst her starch. Justine is therefore far-removed from the cannibalistic fervor we anticipate will takeover after the extra-curricular indulgences. And the fact that one taste of rabbit flesh can create such a drastic change proves as comical as its result is horrific.

Raw toes this line very well, our discomfort and confusion rendering us ripe for laughter and disgust. Miss Goodie-Two Shoes is like every overachiever in that she wants a good night’s sleep, an escape from the debauchery running rampant, and the ability to set the bar scholastically. She should be a pariah with classmates and yet she becomes one with her teachers first. So Justine starts enjoying the camaraderie of gay roommate Adrien (Rabah Nait Oufella) and allows Alexia to take her under wing, both influencing an acceptance of fun. We find dueling personalities bubbling to the surface as who she was gets pitted against who she can become. Has she been given too much freedom? Or has she stifled this truer version of herself for too long?

It all happens literally and figuratively, her metamorphosis from virgin introvert to sex-starved extrovert paralleling a newfound appetite for blood. It becomes a drug that weighs her down, making her sluggish and drunk with desire. Things escalate from raw chicken to human flesh in a wild sequence of revelation you almost feel bad laughing at except for the fact that it’s hilarious to witness. The opening scene is given context, the knee-jerk rejection of what she is becoming slowly dissipates, and we find ourselves wondering how it will come together in the end. Don’t expect some grand plot-heavy destination, though. Ducournau isn’t as interested in taking us somewhere as much as exposing a universal journey in a wholly unique way. This is Justine reaching adulthood, nothing more.

Even so, there’s a lot to unpack. Between the metaphor, graphic imagery (although the most sickening moment to me didn’t involve cannibalism, but rather a grisly purge of unexplained hair), and not so secretive secret of a bigger picture, Raw isn’t simply a run-of-the-mill creature feature. Like Ducournau after the film screened during the Toronto International Film Festival’s Midnight Madness, hearing about the much-publicized need for emergency services after fainting spells were induced has me surprised. What we’re shown isn’t torture porn or overly gruesome at all. And the constant utilization of humor to cut some of the more outrageous moments helps dispel a desire to be sickening too. Maybe it’s that everything is shown with authenticity. The horror is subtly realistic and perhaps more visceral as a result.

Whether you find yourself cringing or excited, however, you cannot deny that Ducournau has crafted an auspiciously assured debut. Not everything is clear, (there’s seemingly a commentary on rape with an early conversation about monkeys and Justine’s use of force leading her to vocally wish a potential victim “fought back harder,” but it’s pushed to the background to seem unfinished), and some reveals are less shocking than perhaps hoped, but none of it took me out of the experience. If anything it adds intrigue to dive deeper. A big part of this is Marillier’s performance and the realism she and Ducournau imbue to often make us forget the film’s genre. It’s absurd and surreal, but its embodiment of the emotional tumult of maturation is unavoidably resonate and familiar.

[1] Garance Marillier stars as Justine in “RAW” a Focus World release. Photo credit: courtesy of Focus World. © 2016 Petit Film, Rouge International, FraKas Productions. All Rights Reserved. © 2016 Focus Features LLC. All Rights Reserved.
[2] Garance Marillier stars as Justine in “RAW” a Focus World release. Photo credit: Courtesy of Focus World. © 2016 Petit Film, Rouge International, FraKas Productions. All Rights Reserved. © 2016 Focus Features LLC. All Rights Reserved.
[3] Garance Marillier stars as Justine in “RAW” a Focus World release. Photo credit: courtesy of Focus World. © 2016 Petit Film, Rouge International, FraKas Productions. All Rights Reserved. © 2016 Focus Features LLC. All Rights Reserved.

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