Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #647
Also known as Grave
Number of Views: One
Release Date: April 7, 2017
Sub-Genre: Body Horror
Country of Origin: France, Italy, Belgium
Box Office: $508,425 (USA)
Running Time: 99 minutes
Director: Julia Ducournau
Producers: Jean des Forêts
Screenplay: Julia Ducournau
Special Effects: Olivier Afonso, Amelie Grossier
Visual Effects: Philippe Frère
Cinematography: Ruben Impens
Score: Jim Williams
Editing: Jean-Christophe Bouzy
Studios: Petit Film, Rouge International, Frakas Productions
Distributors: Wild Bunch Distribution (France), Focus World (USA), Universal Pictures International (UK)
Stars: Garance Marillier, Ella Rumpf, Rabah Nait Oufella, Laurent Lucas, Joana Preiss, Bouli Lanners, Marion Vernoux, Thomas Mustin, Marouan Iddoub, Jean-Louis Sbille
Suggested Audio Jukebox ♫
 The Long Blondes “Giddy Stratospheres”
 Jim Williams “Raw”
 The Dø “Despair, Hangover & Ecstasy”
 Blood Red Shoes “It’s Getting Boring By the Sea”
I consider myself practically unshockable. While some watch through their fingers or look away entirely, I’m right there double-daring filmmakers to push the envelope as far as inhumanly possible. It’s not always been that way and there was a time when I would likely have done just the same. However, there’s not a great deal that I haven’t witnessed on the silver screen and eventually you tend to become desensitized. It’s not how I’d choose things to be and would much rather be the guy who clutches his barf bag for dear life than the one who can watch a rusty nail being driven into a man’s scrotum while scoffing on my foyer wiener. But I’m always more than willing to accept a fresh challenge for the purpose of artistic flourish.
I first learned French filmmaker Julia Ducournau’s solo directorial debut, Raw, through a dear friend and my curiosity instantly piqued. When I checked it out for myself and learned of the way it has been blazing its trail across the festival circuit; I’d already tucked my napkin in. Originally screened at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival, Ducournau’s film scooped the coveted FIPRESCI Prize and those kind of results speak for themselves. However, what really got me frothing from the mouth was that, months later at the Toronto International Film Festival, a number of audience members allegedly required emergency medical attention after fainting during the screening. It’s funny, I heard the very same thing about Wes Craven’s A Nightmare in Elm Street back in 1984 and, for all the hype, the very most it got out of me was an accelerated heartbeat and maybe the odd vague shiver. That said, when the movie in question is a part-French production, it’s generally time to sit up and take notice.
There’s just something fearless about their filmmaking; a matter-of-factness about the manner in which they tackle taboos and tease boundaries. There’s honesty in every last brutality and a certain arrogance about the way these atrocities are presented with a nonchalant shrug, that excites my darkest matter. Srđan Spasojević’s A Serbian Film notwithstanding, the film from the last decade that actually rattled my rollcage most vigorously would be French duo Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo’s excruciating 2007 home invasion number, Inside. Certain scenes very nearly provoked a miscarriage of lunch and there was nothing apologetic about the way Béatrice Dalle went about her broody bloodletting. In short, the French don’t fuck around when it comes to making provocative cinema, and for that I offer a most sincere merci.
Ducournau’s film focuses on Justine (Garance Marillier), a 16-year old girl with a bright future as a veterinarian ahead of her, as she embarks on her first semester at vet school. Both her parents practised as vets, while her older sister Alexia (Ella Rumpf) already attends the same school and is about to commence her second year so she knows precisely what awaits her little sister on arrival.
Justine is about to have her eyes opened in more ways than one as she prepares to undertake this rite of passage. You see, not also is she a virgin and far more naïve than the battle-hardened Alexia, but she is also a vegetarian of the strictest nil by mouth order. If she’s looking to recite a thought-provoking “meat is murder” passage and stand defiant, then she’s come to entirely the wrong place.
It’s not that fresh inductees are expected to guzzle down overcooked burgers as part of their hazing ritual; that wouldn’t test their mettle. But the whole offal consumption deal Justine could do without and, after her and her fellow inductees are drenched in animal blood to set the mood, it’s time for the main course. One raw rabbit kidney is her communion wafer and failure to polish this morsel off where she stands will not be looked upon favorably by her peers.
Looking to her sister for moral support, she instead receives a thorough ticking off for her hesitancy and is forced fed like the baby Alexia considers her to be. If there’s one thing a no-nonsense girl like Alexia won’t stand for; then it’s being made to look bad on account of her cross to bear. But growing pains are the very last of Justine’s concerns right now as unexpected hunger pangs take priority. Not to mention the incessant itching.
There are numerous different types of rash and the one that Justine is accommodating is of the impossible not to scratch like a flea-bitten mutt variety. The campus nurse diagnoses this acute reaction as food poisoning and promptly prescribes her a cream to clear it up but this doesn’t explain the sudden hankering for raw meat. For a girl who kicked up an almighty stink upon finding a rogue sausage tucked away in her mashed potato mere days previous, she’s certainly doing a grand job of embracing her hidden carnivore.
An unplanned late night trip to the refrigerator to scavenge for uncooked chicken breasts to chow down upon suggests some fairly significant changes are afoot but this is far more than simple food fetish. You see, Justine is also beginning to awaken sexually and, with her newfound craving for forbidden meat making itself known, the timing couldn’t be any more wretched to start feeling horny.
Raging hormones is one thing but, when you throw an overwhelming desire to engage in impromptu bouts of cannibalism into the mix, you feel for the poor sucker who plans to snatch away her sexual innocence as it’s invariably going to end in lockjaw and tears.
Her roommate Adrien (Rabah Nait Oufella) may be gay but isn’t off the hook by a long chalk as he’s undergoing something of a voyage of discovery himself and still hasn’t ruled out doing what his fellow alphas would expect of him and exploring their unusual chemistry further. Meanwhile, while Alexia and Justine may be worlds apart with regards to both identity and comportment, but they’re still sisters at the end of the day and it’s starting to become clear that they’re bound by blood in a far more literal sense.
One botched pubic waxing later and the distance between the pair instantly shortens. Remember the scene in Teen Wolf where Scott opens the bathroom door and his father Harold calmly proclaims that “an explanation is probably long overdue”? Yeah, well this ain’t it. But it might be time for Justine to scrutinize her lineage a little more closely as it’s evident Alexia too has similar dietary requirements and this doesn’t bode well with such sibling rivalry between them.
For a first effort, Raw is extraordinarily accomplished. It should come as no great surprise to learn that Ducournau’s father was a dermatologist and mother a gynecologist as her clinical approach to the subject matter suggests there’s very little that turns her stomach. However, this is more than just a textbook exercise in body horror, as attested by the jet black humor that permeates the film.
Whether it’s the glorious sight of a mischievous old geezer in the hospital waiting room playfully revealing his dentures or the casual conversation that plays out between sisters when the elder of the two has her arm up a cow’s rectum (up to the shoulder I hasten to add), we’re never quite sure whether we should be laughing or retching and the likeliness is that we’ll do both at once.
Marillier’s performance is utterly fearless and the role of Justine is an incredibly tough one to nail with any kind of conviction. Here is a young girl who has never been responsible for making her own life choices. Her decision to become vegetarian comes directly from her parents, as does her chosen career path, and we join her at a pivotal point in her life, just as she is attempting to forge her own identity. Confusion, frustration, hope, despair, wide-eyed awe – she manages to juggle all of these emotions effortlessly and never once appears in over her head. Justine may not be the easiest character to identify with, but Marillier’s hugely committed turn ensures that we do precisely that.
It’s not just about her though as Rumpf matches her stride-for-stride in the similarly challenging role of Alexia. Big sister may be more confident and assured, but her burden is every bit as pronounced and it’s no less fascinating to observe her plight, given that she’s already sussed out who she is and is forced to reevaluate once Justine commences her discomfiting metamorphosis. If Raw occasionally feels a tad emotionally chilly then, just like a roadside accident, both girls make damn sure that we cannot avert our eyes for a solitary second.
Ducournau also shows a keen eye for shot composition and, along with gifted Belgian cinematographer Ruben Impens, sets each scene quite brilliantly, drawing us deeper into Justine’s world and also mental state through a number of deft visual touches that demonstrate an appreciation for mise en scène practically unheard of in silver-screen debutantes. There’s also some inventive use of color throughout, particularly when Justine and a full-blooded fellow freshman are saturated in blue and yellow paint respectively, locked in a bathroom together, and informed they aren’t permitted to return until both are a shade of green. Given that this comes at such a pivotal moment in her sexual awakening; it’s an ingenious way to portray such a rite of passage.
Like the meat that Justine snarfs down hungrily, Raw is something of an acquired taste. Its art-house sensibilities won’t suit every palate and the frankness in Ducournau’s approach is likely to have certain less adventurous viewers forcing two fingers down their throats long before we reach the all-you-can-eat phase. However, for as high-handed as it can be at times, as an example of provocative cinema at its most unrefined, it represents a startling achievement. What it lacks in table manners, it more than makes up for with meticulous preparation and presentation. To a big meat-eater like myself, it strikes just the right balance between gristle and lean to earn its gratuity. That said, I may just skip on the sloppy seconds.
Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 8/10
Grue Factor: 4/5
For the Grue-Guzzlers & Pelt-Nuzzlers: Let’s begin by addressing the elephant in the room before Justine and Alexia strip it to the marrow. I’ve long since learned to regard the whole “fainting” deal as little other than a clever publicity stunt and initially struggled to see what the fuss was about with Raw. It certainly has its moments and the superb effects alone may have those of a weaker disposition feeling queasy, but its the unshrinking shot of a dog being dissected that is most likely to test those gag reflexes. Given that this is a part-French production and sexuality is on the menu, it should come as no surprise to learn that we’re soundly catered for on the flesh front. In addition, we’re even provided all-girl instruction on the art of pissing like a dude. This particular trick isn’t so much strangely arousing as downright impressive.
Richard Charles Stevens
Keeper of The Crimson Quill
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