A popular trend to emerge recently in horror cinema is the close study of a character slowly changing, or evolving, into something else, usually monstrous or equally horrific. More often than not these characters are women, a convenient means to take advantage of the genre’s predilection for gender specific violence, nudity and empathy. So far this trend has remained beneath the surface of mainstream acknowledgement, relegated to Video On Demand, with such varied themes like Contracted, where a young woman slowly turns into a zombie, Bite, where a young woman slowly turns into an insect, and Thanatomorphose, where a young woman slowly begins to decay. Body horror is the subgenre, and it’s difficult to watch any of them without thinking of The Fly remake from a few decades ago, directed by David Cronenberg, the popular progenitor, and universally accredited father of this type of film. Jettisoning the science-fiction elements, and the requisite social commentary that goes hand in hand, many of these films become ninety minute teases for icky special effects, without even bothering to craft a story around the grotesqueries. Hopefully that will all begin to change with Raw, a new horror film from Belgium, picked up for wide distribution by Universal’s Focus World, about a young girl heading off to veterinary school who begins to develop an insatiable appetite for human flesh. It is not only a gripping portrait of adolescent realization, but perhaps the most mature marriage of style and substance, of raw, gross-out horror and subtle character evolution, of its genre since Jeff Goldblum vomited on a donut and became Brundle Fly.
For sure Raw is a slow-burner. From the opening moments where a stop at a buffet restaurant on the way to school establishes her entire family as vegetarian when a piece of meat accidentally ends up on her plate, to her pocketing a hamburger at the school lunch line so nobody will see, to a terrible accident with a pair of scissors that entices her to eat someone’s finger, Raw sustains credibility by comfortably inferring this slow escalation of events is related to her newly acquired freedom, and awakening into adulthood. Coming of age films are a veritable cottage industry, and part of the fun of Raw is trying to figure out how far the director is willing to extend the metaphor. Something else is going on of course, but the catalyst does not always need to be explained, and although the connection raised is explicit, it is never played as heavy-handed. As she passes through fellowship initiations, drunken sex parties, and a deeper understanding of herself through her appetite and sexual tensions with her gay roommate, the film orchestrates its own foregone conclusion, that cannibalism will be the logical extension. Watching how far it goes before the shoe drops is unexpectedly bracing and fosters many “hold your breath” moments of jaw-dropping garishness that you cannot look away from.
Raw is not exclusively morose and grim, however, there are plenty of dark, blackly comic moments that its metaphoric premise successfully couches. Existence in both reality and allegory excuses its occasional teetering between tones, but it never betrays the audience’s trust by overdoing the comedy, even in the final moments when the cause is revealed, admittedly a bit of a letdown considering everything that came before, and certainly suggesting the story could have been easily told in a short film, but director Julia Ducournau makes such significant use of each scene that by the time the credits roll there has been far more value communicated than the sum of its parts, and the final scene is brilliantly spared from being the film’s sole purpose. Ducournau is keenly aware of the material, and the threat of not being taken seriously by audiences, but easily overcomes these limitations, thanks in no small part to Garance Marillier, who plays the main character Justine, and who makes her transformation believable and empathetic. Strong stomachs are required to endure her odyssey, and Ducournau successfully gambles on the mutual exclusivity of those outside the film’s target audience.
But for those on board, Raw is that rare coming of age film with an unconventional premise that rewards both patience and constitution. Daring to take this subject matter into brutal and unforgiving territory, while still assuming the conventional arc is an overwhelming display of confidence, and Ducournau’s execution is up to the challenge of visualizing her character’s physical and psychological evolution. Watching Raw it will feel like you’ve seen all this before, and yet it is presented in a way that I’m 100% sure you’ve never seen, and it’s this ability to repackage the familiar, and break new ground in understanding emerging maturity and the realization of identity, that makes Raw stand out from the crowd. And if that doesn’t do it, perhaps the midnight snack of raw chicken or the picking clean of an index finger will.
The Verdict: Rave