Grave | France/Belgium | 2016 | Directed by Juila Ducournau
Logline: Following a carnivorous hazing ritual at a vet school a young vegetarian student has an adverse reaction that spurs an uncontrollable taste for raw flesh.
Justine (Garance Marillier) is dropped off by her parents at the veterinarian college, where her older sister Alexia (Ella Rumpf) is studying, to begin her own tertiary education. Alexia (Juju to her mother) hasn’t bothered to come and and greet her sister or say hi to her folks. Her parents don’t seem overly bothered by that. The father (Laurent Lucas) mutters to Justine that she’d be wise not to have two daughters. The cold vast concrete building of the vet school looms, Justine is all alone.
In the middle of the night her new roommate, Adrien (Rabah Nait Oufella), bursts in trying to escape the initiation chaos. Justine is shocked that she’s been thrust into a shared room with a guy, but Adrien is quick to point out that he’s gay, so what’s the difference. Suddenly their room is ransacked by balaclava-wearing senior students, and Justine and Adrien are forced to join dozens of other half-naked rookies in a hazing ritual in the school quad.
Much to her horror Justine is presented with a raw rabbit kidney she has to consume. She proclaims her vegetarianism, and pleads for help from her sister, supposedly a vegetarian as well, who only insists she stop resisting. Alexia pops a kidney in her own mouth, to prove a point. Justine reluctantly follows suit, is revolted ... and the nightmare seed has been planted.
For her debut feature Parisian Ducournau has fashioned a sleek, minimalist relationship drama with a sharp spine of horror, and a sense of humour as black as pudding. It burns slow like a thriller, and peels back the layers of a dysfunctional sororal bond that eventually snarls like an angry dog and bites like a vicious snake. This is not your average visceral horror movie, not conventional in the way it shocks, for there is something intrinsically - psychologically - disturbing with its primary theme, cannibalism, and the section it tears off and chews feverishly on.
Beautifully composed in widescreen, alternating with quiet moments of clean, elegant lines, and then juxtaposing those with intense, claustrophobic moments of anarchy and brutalism. The college party scenes are especially convincing, a testament to the tiny digital cameras that can get in amongst the tight action without actors and extras having to accommodate and move out of the way of a large camera.
The score by Jim Williams, who has worked on several of Ben Wheatley’s features, lifts the movie to another level, providing an exceptional realm of electric/electronic broodiness. Indeed, the main theme resonates powerfully, long after the final scene, through the end credits. Big props to the awesome (at times ghastly - was that a real dog being sliced open, was that a real cow Alexia had her arm shoved in?!) prosthetic work by sfx whizz Olivier Afonso, who provided Inside (2007) with its amazing set-pieces.
Ducournau has put together an impressive production that is greater than than the sum of its parts. Driven by fantastic, courageous performances from the two leads, Marillier and Rumpf, Raw is never quite as extreme as its hype suggests. But, of course, this is coming from a hardened True Believer. Raw is extreme in its cannibal context, even perversely erotic, and there is one scene, which starts with Alexia coercing Justine into a bit of female grooming, that really is the nightmare crux of the entire movie.
Although I wasn’t wholly convinced by Justine’s rapid descent into cannibalism, nor by Alexia’s unraveling, or even by the movie’s denouement/epilogue - which opted for an explanation I had already seen coming - but, truth be told, I had been sated by the degustation of individual scenes; the hazing menace, the itching, the hungry sex, and the gnarly girl fight were meaty, and the overall tone and vibe, even its frankness, was rich and tasty in that distinct, unique Euro atmosphere.
Raw might have a grave sense of humour, but leave your sniggers at the door, for this is a comedy that bites hard.