My friend Joshua Tanzer passed out during the screening of a movie once. Don’t worry; I’m not publicly humiliating him here—he already made the papers, so his weak constitution is out there for all to read (see page six!). The movie was Ki-duk Kim’s raw yet beautiful The Isle and the scene which put Josh over the edge involved the consumption of fishhooks. What happened was, he stepped out for some air following the sequence in question and collapsed in the doorway on the way out of the theater. The New York Post was there to give him his fifteen minutes of dubious fame though: “Being a movie critic isn’t as easy as you might think,” they wagged.
A word of advice for the founder and editor of OffOffOff.com, “The guide to alternative New York,” who admitted to the ‘Post he has a low threshold for gore: you might want to give Raw a miss.
Julia Ducournau’s queasy little shocker is the latest Gallic envelope pusher to wash up on these distant shores in viscera-red waves aplenty. Raw has a lot more in common with the we-are-what-we-eat ethos of Claire Denis’ Trouble Every Day (aka Cannibal Love) than the torture porn of Pascal Laugier’s brutal Martyrs, but for some reason torture porn carries more cred than cannibalism.
Unlike The Isle, for which there appears to be only one documented incident of a viewer requiring medical attention, Raw has had patrons dropping like flies, including at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival where paramedics were called in to treat multiple milksops who had fainted during a midnight screening of the sexy cannibal horror film.
To the credit of the French, they do make some meaty splatterfests, especially lately—the aforementioned Trouble Every Day and Martyrs, as well as Inside, High Tension (aka Switchblade Romance), and the oddly-punctuated Frontier(s). Artforum‘s James Quandt has labeled this recent phenom the New French Extremity and describes it this way: “Bava as much as Bataille, Salo no less than Sade seem the determinants of a cinema suddenly determined to break every taboo, to wade in rivers of viscera and spumes of sperm, to fill each frame with flesh, nubile or gnarled, and subject it to all manner of penetration, mutilation, and defilement.”
And this was before Raw bowed its bloody head late last year.
Justine’s family are vegetarians. And veterinarians. Vegetarian veterinarians. Now it’s time for her to enter the prestigious vet school her parents attended, and where her older sister Alexia is currently enrolled. Only we don’t understand that right away. It’s not clear what this place is, exactly. A hospital? A sanitarium? A military academy or prison? An educational institution of some sort? Probably the last of these, since the minute Justine flops down in her dorm room, the door bursts open and the hazing rituals begin. Hazing, it appears, is big on campus. The first-year students—rookies they’re called—are subjected to all manner of unpleasant initiations: buckets of blood dumped on their heads, Carrie-style; trotted around on all fours, Salo-style; and forced to consume rabbit sweetbreads, Raw-style. It’s actually Alexia who goads her sister into breaking her no-meat vow, but falling off the vegetable wagon has a profound and disturbing effect on Justine. She develops an insatiable appetite for flesh—an uncooked chicken breast straight from the refrigerator, a kebab from a mini mart, a hamburger pocketed from the cafeteria. And then, following a Brazilian waxing accident, delicacies of a more familial nature (finger food never tasted so good!). In addition to the hazing, there’s the anarchic partying, raves upon drunken raves with little evidence of academic rigor. What kind of professional school is this anyway? Anyway, as expected, things go from liver to wurst and by the film’s conclusion Justine has learned her family’s deepest, darkest secret.
While Ducournau’s film is darkly atmospheric and features a singularly-committed lead performance from Garance Marillier, the newbie director’s modus is clearly shock first, tell a sympathetic story later. Both the setup and the setting are more than a little fuzzy and the characters’ motivations rarely make sense. I myself did not drop like a fly, because I found the whole thing a little too calculated to generate any personal distress. In fact, I thought it was stupid and preposterous and I have a pretty high tolerance for absurdity in the genre. But in order to identify with full-on cannibalism the screenplay’s got to have a little more meat on its bones.
“What are you hungry for?” questions the film’s publicity art. I think I’ll go with the fishhooks. Raw, I’m sorry to say, is just offal.
(c) 2017 David N. Butterworth