Raw: a sensation seeker’s feast
On our obsession with Raw and international horror.
by Stephanie Avro
Littering today’s horror movie landscape, the art of terror in cinema has evolved from an art-house curiosity to bankable commodity. Branched and grown into multitude of subgenres, filmmakers have always pushed the envelope of horror. Subtitles causing for a more conscious viewing, unfamiliar language adding to fear of unknown and universal emotions of terror and pain, the newest trend in this genre is international horror.
Confidently straddling the boundary between gore-shock and psychological horror, “beautiful” and “elegant” aren’t the first words that spring to mind when discussing cannibal films. Director Julia Ducournau manages to pull this off in her 2016 French feature film debut, Raw. Full of images that will shock while others lull with hypnotic beauty, Raw is a visually striking film concerning itself with all matter of nasty business, vomit, blood, regurgitation and open wounds. Being the sensation seeker I am, I see these as inviting prompts to analyse the film in depth.
Raw begins on a note of understated tension as 16-year-old Justine travels to veterinary school with her parents, where they both studied and older sister, Alexia is currently a student. The prestigious institution is presented as bleak and unwelcoming; during rare instances when students are allowed outside, the skies always seem cloudy, an unusual and unsettling location for film. Everyone in Justine’s family is a strict vegetarian; a lifestyle choice she finds difficult to adhere to when confronted with a series of raucous and sadistic freshman hazing rituals. In one of them, the older students force her to eat a small piece of raw rabbit kidney, she immediately suffers a severe reaction which leads to rashes, peeling, and an intoxicating appetite for human flesh. Initially resistant and repulsed, she finds a nibble of animal flesh stirring something primal inside of her. There’s a hallucinogenic quality to the deadpan scenes of Justine coming to grips with this personal channeling of passion and perversity, and a shocking aspect to the carnage that feels invasive in a way most shock artists can’t conjure.
Preoccupied with flesh and bone, Ducournau focuses the biological act of eating, chewing and swallowing, and how that basic human need has become a fraught process for some young women. When Justine eats, it’s with the same lust and shame and ecstasy as when she inexpertly throws herself at her male classmates. Alluding to the societal curtailment of the female appetite, both food and otherwise; unsurprisingly, when Justine’s craving for meat reaches its cannibalistic peak, it’s inextricably linked to her sexual exploration. She raids the fridge at night for raw chicken, insatiably consuming as much bloody meat as possible before vomiting in the daytime. Desperately trying to hold on to her former identity, Justine’s struggle to come to terms with her cannibalism is an echoed allegory for the human condition. I never found myself particularly repulsed by Justine, rather fascinated by the transformation from shy little girl to seductive huntress. In the process, she clearly has no idea what she’s doing, an insecurity which gives her character—and the film as a whole—an unexpected element of relatability.
In stark contrast to American cinema, European horror is largely concerned with aesthetics. Labeled “extreme” from a visual standpoint, graphic violence and stylistic features appear between art film and exploitation cinema. Ducournau’s stylish filmmaking in her blood-drenched color palette, crimson key lights and dark blue tints evoke for manifestations, making her film feel like the breathing organism to which her characters feast upon — sweating, chilling, bleeding, mangled. In contrast to these expressive tones, she also employs the use of grim, grey lighting, symbolic of Justine’s conservative nature. American horror thrives on the ordinary suddenly made horrific, hence unfamiliar erotic tones held by international films. The unfamiliarity of a foreign language only adds to this fear of unknown within horror film.
Subtitles add to this unsettling feature as they force for a more conscious viewing experience. Limiting your amount of surrounding distraction, subtitles force you to look instead of listen. Having to frantically read dialogue while paying equal attention to the action on screen, somethings things happen abruptly in film causing you wonder what the hell just happened. That can be really unsettling since it sets your mind on fire with terrible possibilities that are usually worse than reality.
As the horror genre continues to develop, new sub genres and traditions will continue to arise. Accounting for our ever changing society and culture, each culture offers its own distinct brand of fear, fears which evolve along with the rest of social order. While the gap between European and Western horror may always persist, the feeling of horror is something that is universal, transcending language barriers worldwide.