RAW is a 2016 French-Belgian movie I’ve been planning to see for years. All I knew is that it was something about cannibalism, directed by a woman (Julia Ducournau), supposedly made people faint at film festivals (haven’t we all?), and is beloved by many horror loving friends and critics, especially women. With Ducournau’s new one TITANE looking very promising even before it won the Palme d’Or (the trailer makes it look like Cronenberg meets Tarantino meets THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS) I figured I better catch up.
This is a great movie. The directorial confidence is immediately striking, but you have to flow with it a while to realize just how original it is, how much it doesn’t follow any existing template. Ducournau told The Guardian “It’s not even a horror movie, even though I love horror movies.” It’s a coming of age story about a young woman starting college, with very relatable emotions painted in extreme, horrific strokes. It definitely doesn’t follow any traditional genre structure. But Justine’s school troubles include some repulsive body horror, some gore, and yes, some munching on flesh. We’re not talking Leatherface style – more like impulsive biting. Snacking, really. The simplicity of it, and the time it takes leading up to it, investing us in the people who do it, is what makes it harder to take than in so many other movies.
Long before we get to that, the real terror is this fucking veterinary school our protagonist Justine (Garrance Marillier) goes to, an absolute nightmare of hazing and cruelty. Holy shit, man. I assume this is a fantastical depiction of how hard such a school can be, but I’m gonna avoid all contact with Belgian veterinarians just to be safe. On the first night, goons in ski masks run through the dorms dragging “rookies” out of their bedrooms, trashing all their stuff, throwing their mattresses out the windows, lining them up in the hall in their underwear. It seems like if you weren’t expecting this you wouldn’t know if it was an initiation or a terrorist attack.
Justine seems somewhat aware of the traditions. Both her mom (Joana Preiss, BOARDING GATE) and her dad (Laurent Lucas, POLA X) went to the school, and her older sister Alexia (Ella Rumpf, TIGER GIRL) is an upperclassman. But Justine seems unequipped for it all. Even after the attackers drag their victims to what turns out to be a rave, and everyone is dancing lustily in their underwear and having what looks like the best time ever, Justine walks awkwardly through the crowd, flinching at lunging bodies, not having anyone to talk to until she finally finds Alexia. And her dog Quicky! You can bring a dog to the dance parties here. (I’m glad most people don’t, though. Seems like that would cause huge problems.)
Justine has grown up as more of a good girl than her big sister, who lashes out at her when she tries to use their being raised vegetarian to get out of being force fed a raw rabbit kidney. Come on, everybody does it, you’re embarrassing me. This ritual will give her a repulsive allergic reaction or food poisoning but also spur a hunger for raw flesh that seems to represent her true self that she has to make peace with.
Inititially she goes through this stuff alone, ashamed of herself. She does reach out to her sister at times, which Alexia is sometimes up for and sometimes annoyed by. I like the scene where Justine is upset enough to go find Alexia in class and insist that they need to talk, completely ignoring that she’s elbow deep in a cow orifice.
She seems to be perpetually the little sister – absolutely everything is new and overwhelming in the world of not-living-with-your-parents, even before she becomes cannibal-curious. She’s going to very difficult classes to learn serious medical skills (there’s a haunting scene showing the actual process of sedating a horse and rolling it onto a stretcher), she seems sexually curious about her gay male roommate Adrian (Rabah Nait Oufella, GIRLHOOD, THE CREW, NOCTURAMA), and then there’s the constant torment. She walks to class with her head down but can’t help but be stopped and angrily accosted about not wearing some silly outfit she’s supposed to wear. The whole class get buckets of animal blood dumped on them and then just go to class with it drying on them, as if it’s normal. These different threads come together when she’s dragged to a party, coated in paint and thrown into a room to make out with a boy. He goes at her without consent but when she does get into it, she injures him.
There’s some new innovations in cringe-gore, but to me one of the most upsetting scenes is just when she first wakes up itchy with that rash and can’t stop scratching at it. It looks so real I found myself having to look away – something I rarely do – but then I realized that the sound of the scratching was really what was getting to me, so there was no escape.
Ducournau hates people “genderising” her movie, because of course it’s not made only for women, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen a man depict female sexuality this way: aggressive, lustful, but neither fetishized or demonized. Just kinda… intense. And human. Okay, it gets animalistic when she’s with Adrien. He can tell that she’s trying to bite his neck and keeps pushing her away, saying to stop. But when he sees that she bites her own wrist he doesn’t freak out. He pats her head like he feels sorry for her.
There’s a dance party where one student is licking the eyeball of another while Justine is sprawled on the side of the room in fishnets, watching with a huge smile that’s about 2/3 lust and 1/3 Jack Nicholson in THE SHINING. The transformation from the timid wallflower at the beginning to this fierce being is really an incredible acting feat. I think this also sums up some of the brilliance of Ducournau, that she can create a scenario that insane and surreal that is in no way weirdness-for-weirdness’-sake. Her approach illustrates a whole bunch of very recognizable feelings much more vividly than any literal depiction ever could. And that might be the best argument against this technically qualifying as horror (if such things matter to you). It’s only scary that Justine is turning into this monster in the same way that coming to terms with anything about yourself is scary. I think the movie’s sincere belief is that Justine is growing up and discovering herself and that’s natural and good. Personally I would miss tofu, but I’m happy for her being happy.
I think it has some themes in common with GINGER SNAPS, while being much artier, but also much more brutal. I have no idea whether that makes it more or less legit for certain horror purist sects, but I would think almost anyone who is okay with gore and into the good shit would love this movie.
I’m going to see TITANE this afternoon and will report back when I’m ready. Meanwhile RAW is no longer on Shudder (at least the U.S. version) but I found it on Tubi (honestly the commercials felt like a protective measure for this one) and you can also get it on disc. UPDATE: Just as I went to post this I saw a tweet saying it’s now on Netflix.