The premise is just so damn tasty: A teenaged vegan, Justine (Garance Marillier), enters the veterinary school where her sister, Alexia (Ella Rumpf), is already an upperclassman. The college, a stark, bizarre combination of penitentiary and permanent rave, sports a series of strange hazing rituals, including newbies like Justine getting doused with blood, Carrie style, and being forced to choke down uncooked rabbit kidneys like communion wafers.
Slowly, reluctantly, Justine awakens to her taste for human blood and raw flesh, a hunger that starts with a tentative lick and that leads to a gruesome scene in which she gnaws down her sister’s severed finger like a chicken wing.
Premise, then, is one thing; execution, entirely another.
Written and directed by Julia Ducournau, Raw is a French-Belgian horror film that is at once churningly grotesque and tediously dull, like getting your wisdom teeth pulled on the installment plan. As a film in search of a metaphor, Raw is pretentious and oblique and philosophically incontinent.
The French have a great tradition of pushing the envelope, from the Marquis de Sade to Ferdinand Celine to Georges Bataille, all of whom redrew the boundaries of art by the shattering of psychological and sexual taboos. Raw, which wants desperately to partake of that tradition, does not so much push the envelope as shred it, creating a depressing confetti of empty ideas.
Addiction metaphor? Sure. Feminist critique? If you say so. Indictment of consumerism? I suppose. Comment on hereditary sin? OK. Capitalist satire? Whatever. The problem here is that the list could go on and on, because Raw, in the end, lacks the kind of narrative coherence and economy that might justify its own excesses.
Of course, you are free not to take my word about all of this, because Raw is receiving nearly universal acclaim, having debuted at Cannes to critical raves. Whereas I found the movie to be confused and empty and depressing, other viewers are responding to what they consider the film’s rich symbolism and moody atmosphere, as well as to the introduction of a strong new female director.
Then there are those audience members who, during the Toronto Film Festival, received emergency medical attention after fainting during one of Raw’s graphic scenes. Sounds like The Exorcist all over again.
For me, it wasn’t so much the brutality of Raw that I found disturbing. After all, I’m a big fan of The Human Centipede, a movie that put the lie to every horror film in history by saying, “You want disgusting and outrageous? You got it.” Say what you will about The Human Centipede, it had the courage of its convictions, and it carries its perverted vision to the bitter end with a kind of singular savage integrity.
What bothered me most about Raw was a nagging sense that the movie puts cannibalism and vampirism in the service of a dozen half-baked ideas it doesn’t quite earn, much less get to jibe, resulting in a story that is neither truly scary nor truly thought provoking. It tries to have its rabbit kidney and eat it, too. (Broadway Metro)