A terrible beauty is born
Buckets of blood are spilled and ugly rashes spread across guilty bodies – but this is no mere gorefest, writes
Garance Marillier in Raw
RAW Directed by Julia Ducournau. Starring Garance Marillier, Ella Rumpf, Rabah Naït Oufella, Laurent Lucas, Joana Preiss. 18 cert, limited release, 98 min It’s been a while since we’ve had a horror film that caused audiences to be hospitalised with acute disgust. Just such a headline-grabbing event occurred when Julia Ducournau’s Raw screened at the Toronto Film Festival.
“An ambulance had to be called to the scene as the film became too much for a couple patrons,” a marketing wonk said. They hadn’t seen that sort of reaction since Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist.
I don’t imagine too many experienced horror enthusiasts will find vomit seeping through cupped fingers. But the Franco-Belgian picture is certainly layered with unpleas- antness. A young woman severs her own finger and blames it on the dog. Buckets of blood are spilled. Ugly rashes spread across guilty bodies. The film has something of Claire Denis’s Trouble Every Day about it – the same striving for horrible beauty – but Raw is more coherent, more propulsive and, crucially, more at home to arterial humour. The picture justifies the feminist analyses it will inevitably generate. It also offers much disgusting fun.
We begin with a gentle omen of what is to come. Justine (Garance Marillier), a committed vegetarian, is dining at a bland motorway café with her family. The party is uniformly revolted when she discovers a stray lump of sausage in her mashed potato. It is some measure of Ducournau’s capacity to make us identify that the scene feels almost as unsettling as the much greater horrors to come. The hunk is, after all, ground-up flesh mixed in with less easily identifiable filler. We’re surrounded by sublimated death.
Justine is on her way to the same veterinary college that her parents attended. Her older sister Alexia (Ella Rumpf) is already there and has been inducted into a fraternity that makes US equivalents seem like sewing circles. In the opening week, Justine endures a hazing ritual that involves, among other visceral horrors, the consumption of a raw rabbit’s kidney. She reluctantly gulps it down and, shortly afterwards, develops a skin complaint and a yearning for raw meat. Animals will do. People are better.
Raw makes an argument about the ugliness of the carnivorous urge. No other interpretation is possible of a film that presents that desire as a Cronenbergian disease. Yet Ducournau manages to skew her universe in such a way that the moral perversion seems scarcely less appalling than the everyday weirdness around.
It was a stroke of genius to set the film in a veterinarian school. Horses are sedated. Living cows are examined in sober examination halls. Students push their arms deep into orifices that no civilian would contemplate without a gun at their heads. Justine never seems significantly barmier than any of the supposedly normal students.
Marillier gives an impressively desperate performance. We sense her fighting to get off a train that is hurtling inexorably towards oblivion. Rumpf is cool as a mildly elder sister who, in this competitive environment, may as well be from a different generation.
What really sets the film apart, however, is the appalling power of its disgusting images. Francis Bacon would have got on all right with the dripping flesh. Hannibal Lecter would, however, have been disgusted at the inelegant preparation of the comestibles. Make of that what you will.