Raw (France/Belgium, 2017)

March 17, 2017
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Raw Poster

I’m not feeling the love. Raw, the 2016 French/Belgian horror film, has received considerable praise across the international cinematic landscape for its contribution to the genre. However, what Raw offers isn’t so much original as it is a repackaging of select aspects of zombie/vampire lore. Although there’s nothing inherently wrong with that – even the best horror films typically beg, borrow, and steal – the movie’s qualifications are suspect. At times, it seems like a showcase for director Julia Ducournau, an opportunity for her to show off her considerable skills as a filmmaker. Raw is often visually arresting but it fails at a key aspect of basic horror: atmosphere. There’s nothing creepy or remotely scary about this movie. It relies on gross-out scenes to earn the right to be called “disturbing” and seems more interested in delivering schlocky shocks than suffocating the viewer with suspense or dread.

Raw feels unformed – a collage of partially realized ideas and moments that never gel. The movie relies on our inherent revulsion for the consumption of human flesh to keep us from seeing the thinness of the screenplay. When it comes to gore, Ducournau doesn’t skimp – we see scenes of severed fingers being nibbled like mini corn cobbs, brains being sampled, and love bites go beyond the norm. But the characters are incomplete, the scenario is absurd, and the story doesn’t really go anywhere. Raw feels like a premise in want of a film.

The setup is simple enough: the young protagonist, wunderkind Justine (Garance Marillier), is dropped off at college by her parents. Her school, a prestigious educational establishment for veterinarians, is an ominous-looking place. On her first night, she is subjected to a hazing ritual that culminates in a rave. After enduring her ritual humiliation, Justine encounters her upper classman sister, Alexia (Ella Rumpf). The next day, as part of the ongoing initiation process, she is required to consume a raw rabbit kidney. As a lifelong vegetarian, she is understandably reluctant but, faced with possible ostracization, she succumbs. This turns out to be a bad move – the consumption of uncooked meat awakens a hunger in her that she can’t control and, when Alexia loses her finger in a freak accident, Justine discovers that family bonds are no barrier to what constitutes food.

To the extent that the movie is about anything other than inappropriate food habits, it focuses on the odd relationship between sisters. As it turns out, that’s about the only aspect of Raw that works. This is partly because of the spot-on performances of Garance Marillier and Ella Rumpf and partly because Ducournau has a better sense of how to handle the human aspects of her characters’ interactions than the unsavory ones. This makes Raw a bizarre outlier – a horror film where the dramatic elements work better than the scary ones.

The pace is slow and the tone is far too serious. There are instances of black humor but, for the most part, Ducournau keeps things somber. Visually, the movie has its share of showy moments. I especially liked the blue+yellow=green exploration of primary colors, and there are a few other arresting images. I never felt as if my stomach was going to rebel, which makes me skeptical about the reports of mass walk-outs (with attendees fleeing for lavatories) during overseas festival screenings. Yes, Raw peddles blood & gore but, c’mon, we’ve seen worse.

If I was to guess, Raw might be headed for cult classic-dom. It has that sort of feel. As something to watch in a normal movie-theater at a normal screening (rather than a midnight show in about ten years), it’s a dubious proposition – not bad enough to be interesting and not good enough to be worth paying money for.

Raw (France/Belgium, 2017)

Director: Julia Ducournau
Cast: Garance Marillier, Ella Rumpf, Rabah Nait Oufella
Home Release Date: 2017-09-05
Screenplay: Julia Ducournau
Cinematography: Ruben Impens
Music: Jim Williams
U.S. Distributor: Focus Features
Run Time: 1:39
U.S. Release Date: 2017-03-17
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Gore, Sexual Content, Nudity, Profanity)
Genre: Horror
Subtitles: In French with English subtitles
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1