RAW (a.k.a. Grave) ***** France / Belgium / Italy 2016 Dir: Julia Ducournau. 99 mins
In her first feature, Garance Marillier is outstanding as a skinny vegetarian who winds up eating raw rabbit kidneys as part of Rush Week initiation rituals at Vet School. She wakes up with an intensely itchy red rash all over her body, and gradually develops a craving for meat, animal and otherwise. Marillier physically and mentally transforms before our eyes from pallid virgin in unicorn t-shirts to sexually active cannibal, in a film offering a revisionist contemporary take on a familiar horror movie taboo.
Ducournau’s approach sometimes echoes past studies of alienated teenage “monsters”, notably Romero’s MARTIN and John Fawcett’s GINGER SNAPS, while successfully invoking discomfort from imagery as diverse as pubic hair waxing and human finger-chewing. Ducournau’s smart, perceptive script deals with heady issues: body image and conformity, the inequality between humans and animals (key ironic statement: “An animal that has tasted human flesh isn’t safe”) and emergent sexuality. As director, she refuses to either fall back on obvious shock effects or take a solemn approach to the subject matter: the streak of gallows humour running through the movie is disarmingly effective (“You taste like curry”), as is the powerful reveal of the film’s most brutal (but off-camera) assault. The father-daughter coda even ends the film on a wonderfully low key, poignant note. A relatively early narrative reveal positions this film as a 21st century cousin to Pete Walker’s subversive, witty FRIGHTMARE (1974), while Marillier’s multi-layered central performance represents the latest in a line of unforgettable, unwittingly murderous teenage horror heroines. British composer Jim Williams, a veteran of Ben Wheatley’s movies (notably KILL LIST), provides a suitably beguiling, distinctive audio backdrop to this exceptional feature debut for French writer-director Ducournau.
Review by Steven West