Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Review: "Raw"

Every now and then you hear about movie so gruesome and disturbing there’s a rash of people fainting/vomiting/fleeing the theater. Most of the time, I suspect, this is the product of an overeager marketing department rather than a wave of true hysterics.

Or maybe it’s me, a kid who grew up on hard-R horror -- my parents were quite upstanding, I assure you – but I never fail to come away disappointed by these movies.

Is “Raw,” a French/Belgian cannibalism flick, really that gross? On the art/European film spectrum, maybe. There’s plenty of blood and indirect flesh-munching. But any decent American horror movie from the 1980s or ‘90s – before the unfortunate advent of PG-13 rated horror – will out-gore it with ease.

I literally watched “Raw” while eating lunch, and encountered not so much as a hiccup.

But let’s leave aside the bloody stuff and ask the bigger question: is this an effective film? Is it scary? Will you be disturbed? Does it raise discomforting questions about the intersection of human impulses, sexuality and violence?

On that more substantial score… I was still left wanting.

Actress Garance Marillier and writer/director Julia Ducournau both make their feature film debuts with “Raw,” though they previously worked together on a pair of short films. It’s the story of a timid vegetarian girl, Justine, who goes off to veterinary college and finds that she has culinary and carnal cravings that she’d been suppressing.

Her craving for flesh, both erotic and digestive, turns out to be of the forbidden kind.

I appreciated that Marillier looks like a real teenager: painfully thin, awkward in her own body, even some bad skin – which miraculously clears up after her character’s diet changes. With her hooded stare and angelic features, she’s the classic horror heroine who discovers she has hidden strengths and dark impulses.

I also really liked Ella Rumpf as her older sister, Alexia, who’s an upperclassman at the vet school and takes great pains to make her disdain for her sibling known. She’s got a voluptuous verve and a sensuous smirk about her; she reminds me of a young Nastassja Kinski. Her character is used to being the center of attention, and resents that her brainy kid sister could steal some of the limelight.

Their school is simply not to be believed. The academics and administrators seem to be wholly absent, leaving it to the seniors to lead the rookies through an orgiastic maze of debauchery and hazing. One of the first things they do is put the kids in their crisp new white lab coats, then dump a river of blood on them. Each new student is also forced to eat raw rabbit kidneys, which first awakens Justine’s cravings.

The students have semi-nude dance parties, take copious drugs and make newbies engage in sexual dalliances with each other. If any of this happened at a real institution, they’d have 16 lawsuits within the first week.

Justine is given a man as a roommate, Adrien (Rabah Naït Oufella), but since he’s gay and Arab that’s supposed to make it cool. She eventually finds herself lusting after him, with a little shoulder-biting that grows increasingly less playful.

Somewhere there’s a good idea for a movie inside “Raw,” but the one they ended up making remains half-baked horror.

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