A Gruesome Sexual Awakening

in 69th Cannes Film Festival

by Michael Kienzl

Horror cinema doesn’t have the best reputation. People, who are not familiar with the genre, often claim that it’s only meant to entertain with cheap thrills, that it’s superficial or just simply gross. Actually horror movies are highly underestimated. More than just a few productions use their transgressions to make a point about the hierarchies and injustices of our world. They challenge gender stereotypes and hide social critism behind blood and suspense.

At a festival like Cannes horror movies are rarely shown. This year one of the few example was the impressive debut feature of Belgian director Julia Ducournau, which had it’s premiere in the Semaine de la Critique. Raw (Grave) can be seen in a long tradition of genre films about the disturbing transformations of young people. Like John Carpenter’s Christine or Jack Sholder’s Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge, the core of Raw is a coming of age story. It’s about the solitude of Justine (Garance Marillier) who starts to study veterinary medicine at a university far from home. The shy and nerdy girl is an outsider who has difficulties in finding new friends. Soon she is confronted with a gruesome sexual awakening she is not ready to handle.

Raw tells this story with familiar themes from the horror genre. The main character was brought up as a strict vegetarian by her boho parents. When she has to eat a rabbit’s liver during a hazing ritual, she starts to change. What begins with an itching rash soon becomes an uncontrollable hunger for human flesh. From now on Justine is torn between satisfying her desire and fighting her moral doubts. Ducuornau has a strong visual language that uses flickering colours, terrible nightmares and slow motion party scenes. Combined with a humming and immersive electronic soundtrack the viewer doesn’t only witness Justine’s painful metamorphosis but also feels it. Even when the girl is gnawing on her sister’s finger or snapping after a dead body, we don’t turn away in disgust but still have compassion for her. One of the reasons for this empathy is that Ducournau doesn’t treat her protagonist like a monster. The cruelties of Justines fellow students and the arrogance of her teachers still make her the most likeable character in the film.

What’s so special about Raw is its emphasis on a female perspective. Ducournau shows cannibalism as a dark need that overwhelms her protagonist. The theme of unfulfilled love appears when Justine feels more and more attracted to her gay roommate (a son of Arab migrants, who is an outsider himself). When she finally tries to get complete control over her body she seems like an anorexic fighting her natural needs and throwing up what she just ate in shame. Ducuorunau finds terrifying images for widespread problems of adolescent suffering. But what makes Raw so remarkable is not only a deep understanding for the alienation of the tormented heroine but also the willingness to celebrate the gory fun of horror movies.

Edited by Rita Di Santo