With the possible exception of the most dedicated cinephiles, too many Americans eschew foreign films that require reading subtitles. I’ve heard people rationalize it as "I got to the movies to watch not read." Others may hold out until the film is dubbed in English before attending a showing. There is a serious problem intrinsic to the process of dubbing. The translation is done by selecting words that most closely emulate the syllable count so that there is a rough approximation to how the mouth of the actor moves. The replacement voice rarely can convey the proper emotional intensity as the original language.My late wife was fluent in several languages and frequented noted that the nuances found in the subtitles better match the intended dialogue found in the script. With these factors in mind, it is far better to put up with some reading to have the experience as the filmmaker intended. This conversation came up with the most recent foreign film I received for preview, ‘Raw.' The movie made by French/Belgian filmmakers as part of the French New Wave Cinema movement that believed in a gritty realism and unvarnished foundation for the story. The advertisements for the movie revealed a crucial element of the story; the main theme involves cannibalism depicted in a gruesomely realistic fashion. Like several other examples of this theme, it is often found on lists of intensely gross and disturbing movies typically due to the vivid realism achieved by the special effects and makeup experts. For the potential audience members still unconvinced regarding the merits of a foreign language film, please try to keep in mind, inherently this provides advantage point different from what you are accustomed to watching. When applied specifically to this story the artistic intentions are much different from expectations. It is only natural to associate cannibalism with brutal horror but the auteur behind this opus, Julia Ducournau, had something entirely different in mind for her audience to experience.
Justine (Garance Marillier), is a young woman about to embark on the training to prepare her for her life’s vocation. Justine has left her family home to begin her studies in veterinarian medicine. The previous year Justine’s sister, Alexia (Ella Rumpf) started her first year at the school. Justine is introduced to her roommate, Adrien (Rabah Nait Oufella), a gay man. The two of them are invited to a meeting for the incoming class. At the party, the upperclassmen inform the freshmen that they are required to pass a traditional test, a rite of passage every student must pass. The next morning the newcomers are once again gathered together. The seniors are wearing balaclavas brutally herd them together into an elevator. The newbies, wearing only their underwear, terrified into compliance. Forced to crawl on hands and knees they are moved into a large open space were to the relief of the first-year students, a rave breaks out with liberal access to alcohol and drugs. She encounters her sister who brings Justine to a hallway covered with pictures of previous classes. Justine notes some heads in the photo were cut out. Alexia explains there were traitors, refusing to complete the initiation. Further down the hallway is a class photo containing their parents. Justine realizes that her mother and father acquiesced to the still mysterious traditional act of fidelity.
The next morning after class, they are lead into the yard still wearing their lab coats. Suddenly, vats of blood attached to an overpass are dumped all over the new class as their official freshman group photograph is was taken. After an introductory speech they line up for the main event, they must eat a raw rabbit kidney. Justine declines to cite she, like her entire family, are vegetarians. Alexia is called for confirmation stating she is no long abstaining from meat. She urges her younger sister to follow the example she set the year before and eat the piece of meat. Reluctantly, Justine chokes it down. At the lunch that follows, Justine is drawn into a very bizarre conversation where a classmate posits AIDS began when somebody raped a monkey. Another student claims that monkey rape was an urban legend and besides, animals, are devoid of rights. Justine staunchly holds to her position of animal rights stating monkeys are self-aware and would be as traumatized as a human woman. Although the point of view being expressed stretches credulity, it does serve to convey her personality and core beliefs efficiently. In the initial scenes showing Justine traveling to the school, she was concerned with leaving the safe, familiar environment of her parent’s home. The most significant factor allowing her to overcome this trepidation was her unconditional love of animals. Growing up in a household of vegetarians and both parents working as veterinarians, Justine was suppressing her deepest beliefs when defending the concept of animal rights. Later that night Justin breaks out in a rash that the doctor diagnosed as food poisoning.
The story slips seamlessly into the second act as Justine’s comfortable world begins to erode. One night, Justine and Adrien take a midnight drive to get snacks at a nearby gas station. While drive they witness a serious car crash. The mayhem seems to affect her resulting In a strange craving. She is hopeless to fight the compulsion, giving in by eating raw chicken. The next day she visits one of her professors to discuss her growing concerns. During the meeting, she vomits a ball oh=f hair she has been pulling out and eating. That night Justine dies out drinking with her sister. Feeling to impaired to return to her dorm and asks Alexia if she can stay the night at her apartment. In her bathroom, Justine notices her sister has the same medicated cream the doctor prescribed for the rash. After taking advantage of the time together. They decide to have a bit of sisterly bonding time with Alexia giving Justine a Brazilian wax. The wax strip sticks to the tangle of hair; Alexia is forced to cut it free with a pair of scissors. Justine reacts forcefully kicking Alexia who slips, severing a finger in the process and passing out. Justine is overwhelmed by sight and begins to eat the digit. Alexia regains consciousness to witness the horrifying sight. Later, when explaining the accident, they blame to the dog, citing the old belief that once an animal tastes human blood, they will obsessively crave it. The innocent animal is put down.
This does reinforce a dominant aspect of the emotional dynamic between these siblings. Alexia loves her little sister and is apparently accustomed to bailing her out of trouble or any difficult situation. Alexia immediately saved her from being shunned by the upperclassmen resulting from Justine’s repulsion of eating meat. The inherent need to protect Justine was pushed to an exceptional level when Alexia sacrificed her pet to prevent her sister from being branded a cannibal. However, this act of extreme sisterly love had had consequences. It prevented Justine from receiving the proper psychological treatment to address; it prevented Justine from receiving the proper psychological treatment to address the onset of such a serious change in personal undermining her core beliefs. According to Alexia’s statement, Justine has tasted human blood and is now forced to crave human blood. From the narrative perspective, it is an organic means to transition into the third scene. Such a poignant emotional foundation is a critical component to what elevated this film beyond the hackneyed cannibal oriented horror flick. The purpose of that type of movie rests upon instilling a sense of terror in the audience. Whether the method is visceral or psychological, the end product remains to scare the viewers. Much of the advertising about the film concentrated on the most sensational element of the story, degrading a human being to a source of meat.
Beneath the veneer of a standard horror trope lies a far more relatable theme, one we can all immediately identify with, coming of age. Justine had been raised with an inherent respect for all life. Born into a family business that embraced animal life as precious for Justine the act of consuming a piece of a sentient creature was, from her perspective, not intrinsically different from devouring part of a human being, at least from her moral vantage point. The film works exceedingly well as a psychological horror story but the deeply relatable emotional standpoint, transcends the mundane aspects of the genre becoming something substantially textured and thought-provoking. Each time you revisit this film, you will undoubtedly come away with a better appreciation of its artistry.