Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Mar 18, 2017 6:39 pm 
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Hungry girl

Raw (Grave in French, which means something different, of course) is the first film written and directed by Julia Ducournau. It concerns Justine (Garance Marillier), who is only 16 (though the actress looks older and is older). She is reserved and precocious, and her parents (Joana Preiss and Laurent Lucas, who've had some interesting and edgy roles before this, especially Lucas - Lemming and With a Friend Like Harry, for example) take her to join her older sister, the bumptious Alex (Ella Rumpf), as a student at a rather unusual veterinary collage. No wonder this turns into a horror movie.

Justine and her parents are vegetarians. Why is that important? The same way it's important that she's a virgin. She's a tabula rasa. A little below the surface this prim vegetarian virgin is a sex-starved vixen whose taste for raw, bloody flesh is so rapacious it rapidly leads to cannibalism. There: I have given it alway. But there is plenty of buzz about this movie, about people fainting or having to be led out of the cinema, when it first showed at Cannes. And the English title, Raw, doesn't hide anything. If you don't know what's in store, you're a perfect tabula rasa too, ripe for shock. You're lucky.

We, like Justine, are assaulted from the start of her arrival, when her parents point out to her the location of the hospital and the morgue. ("I'm already getting confused about geography," she says.) More than a veterinary college, this is a ferocious hazing program. The new students - the first year is the best, Alex tells Justine - are made to crawl on all fours on the way to a wild party. They are doused from above with buckets of animal blood. They're made to eat raw animal organs. Justine's is a rabbit's kidney. There are wild bachanalias. And Justine's roommate Adrien (Rabah Naït Oufella) is a hunky gay guy whose nearly shaved head and thick lips make him look animalistic and sexy. Justine opens the door of their room one day and he's standing there getting a blow job. Raw doesn't spent much time on personalities or the development of relationships. But it's strong on sisterly bonding, and Justine and Adrien are bosom buddies nearly immediately, and often sleep side by side. It goes further than that - lots further. Classes? They go directly into drawing and quartering horses, dissecting dogs, things like that. But the hazing takes up most of the time.

Raw is a good looking, well cast and well acted film. It's French. Cronenberg and Lynch have been mentioned. Nonetheless it risks feeling more like a chic exploitation film. It's a horror genre movie toned down just enough to be taken seriously by more effete, non-genre viewers. It has some good shocks spaced through its run-time. Justine has a succession of revolting scenes, those involving eating of meat before she gets to like it; then her violent scratching of a rash; her chewing and then vomiting up quantities of her own hair; her sister's painful wax removal of her pubic hair; her consumption of a severed finger. Bu despite all this individualized disgustingness, the film is fundamentally shallow and unsubtle. It focuses - successfully though - on propulsive action rather than mood, and fails to awaken much emotion, other than disgust. For this reason its effect can be pretty superficial. It's well done for what it is. Again: it's French; its gross, tasteless song lyrics are in that language, subtitled. It has good production values. It has a glossy, beautiful look; but it still hasn't solved the problem of how to make blood look real.

Yes, Julia Ducournau shows talent and has produced an accomplished first feature. It's not clear that she is the kind of distinctive talent we see in Lucile Hadžihalilović, the wife of Gaspar Noë, for example, and this film has been a bit overrated. It doesn't leave one with much to ponder. It all comes down to a pretty simple explanation at the end. It made me giggle more than cringe. This place, and these people, were so blatantly fictitious. LIke Anthony Lane of The New Yorker, "when the carnage was over" I too "went out and had a steak." No frissons, no nightmares. But yeah, I can see turning into a compulsive cannibal would be pretty bad. Is that why people give up eating meat? They might not be able to control themselves? This isn't an ad for vegetarianism: it makes vegetarians look creepy.

Raw/Grave, 99 mins., debuted at Cannes at Critics Week, receiving the FIPRESCI Prize; shown in many other international festivals it has won many awards and nominations. Its critical acclaim is impressive. Metacritic rating is 82%; AlloCiné press rating is 4.1. Actually released in the US before France, 10 Mar., US, 15 Mar. France. Also shown as part of Film Comment Selects 2017 at Lincoln Center and listed in the FSLC-Unifrance Rendez-Vous with French Cinema as well.

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