‘Raw’ MOVIE REVIEW: Cannibal Tale Doesn’t Bite Hard Enough

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Julia Ducournau’s Raw (a.k.a Grave) has an intimidating festival reputation and a delicious vegetarian-turns-cannibal concept. Vet student Justine (Garance Marillier) arrives for her first week of university, but must first endure a bizarre and endless stream of initiation rituals instigated by the older students. Justine, nervous and unsure of herself, is peer pressured into ditching her vegetarianism when she eats a rabbit kidney as one of the oddball hazing stunts. Justine starts to find her feet at uni, with the help of her sister Alexia (Ella Rumpf) and roommate Adrien (Rabah Naït Oufella), but before long a craving begins to manifest for a particular kind of meat– human.

The cannibal movie’s place in the annals of horror is firmly cemented by the Italian Cannibal Cycle of the 70s and 80s, but it certainly wouldn’t be a bad thing for the cannibal movie to get a modern examination, to sluice off some of the genre’s associated sleaze and animal killing. And that’s why Raw gets off to a great start by playing it smart and sophisticated. A straight Gallic horror reinvention that eschews the sub-genre staples.

As great as this all sounds though, willing the movie to be good is not enough to actually make it so. Although Raw is a great prospect, it just doesn’t quite do enough. The end result: rather ordinary.

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To be clear, Raw is not a bad film. It’s just that it promises so much more than it can deliver. Getting away from the baggage, there are a number of things to like about it. For one thing, it is refreshing that Raw steps away from stereotype by having its principal characters be strong, intelligent women and a gay man. It’s a shame that this should still be so against type within the horror genre as to warrant comment in 2017, but nevertheless it makes for an interesting take on the proceedings.

The performances are excellent too and everyone commits to it. Marillier is particularly good as Justine – awkward and nervous, and swaying between the need for acceptance and not wanting to participate in weird university traditions. Her relationship with Alexia (Rumpf) is strong and eminently watchable – built on a foundation of both love and irritation, and the two are completely convincing as sisters.

It succeeds further with some nicely icky sequences in the first half. Justine develops an itchy, scaly rash which causes unpleasant viewing, and the scene in which she finally, fully succumbs to her cannibalistic tendencies is memorable in a fun and darkly comic way.

So, it’s a shame that, by its end, Raw is something of a disappointment. In its middle section, where things should be ramping up nicely– not a lot happens. The film plateaus and we’re left wondering, despite the climax, where all the horror went?

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The infamous tales of audience members requiring medical attention at the Toronto International Film Festival are difficult to reconcile with what’s on screen, since it’s actually all rather tame. It’s hard to understand where these stories came from, other than the overworked imagination of a marketing executive. Does no one ever stop to consider how overpraise can be just damaging to a movie as negativity? How could Raw do anything other than buckle under the weight of expectation with a story like that propping it up?

There are other aspects of the movie that also frustrate. For example, Justine’s vegetarianism seems like the perfect device to coax some commentary and/or laughs out of the irony. But it never goes anywhere. It’s used solely as a device to introduce the family, and for a bit of hang wringing when Justine is forced to eat the rabbit kidney. It’s an idea that was begging for further exploration and it never materialises.

When considering the remarkable French horror output since the turn of the century, and the envelope pushing by films categorised as the New French Extremity, Raw is a bit of a regressive step, or at best a placeholder. That’s not to say horror films must become more extreme or offensive by default, but in the sense of what it means to be a horror film ““ the desire to terrify an audience or make them uncomfortable ““ Raw is just too pedestrian to fully satisfy.