Wednesday 5 April 2017

Appetite for destruction: "Raw"

It's been a while since the movies have thrown a proper cannibal holocaust and set us all to vomiting in the aisles, and it's not as though the planet's rate of consumption has slowed any in recent times. Perhaps we deserve one. Julia Ducorneau's Raw, which both impressed and grossed out the first responders at Cannes last year, unfurls as a youthful update of two of French cinema's millennial provocations: it's a little like Trouble Every Day, that rogue item in the Claire Denis back catalogue that has been steadily gaining a cult reputation, spliced with A Ma Soeur!, that Catherine Breillat horrorshow about the rivalry between teenage sisters at markedly different stages in their physical and emotional development. (Which is another way of saying that its feminist credentials are all but unimpeachable.) The sisters-who-aren't-quite-sisters trope recurs here. Our heroine is Justine (Garance Marillier), a nervy vegetarian packed off to veterinary school, where she's expected to tread dutifully in the footsteps of her just-older sibling Alex (Ella Rumpf). Some of the usual college comedy rites-of-passage follow - the hazing, the cramming, the fitting-in - though our girl increasingly finds herself beset by a variety of peculiar ailments. Her skin flares up, her stomach rumbles eternally - not in this instance from the stereotypical student's diet of Pot Noodles, but from a heightened awareness of all the fresh meat being paraded around her.

Ducorneau's venturing a link between cannibalism and a young woman's burgeoning appetites - and how the former might manifest, at times of stress, as an eating disorder much like any other. Her tone, however, remains blackly comic: hence the suggestive cut from a shot of Justine spying her gay male roommate (Rabah Nait Oufella) receiving a blowjob to a pan along the rows of ham baguettes on offer at the college refectory. When the heroine is advised to use two fingers to bring up a hairball in the wake of one of her own midnight feasts, the gag also serves to make a point: namely that bulimia has become such a commonplace among teenagers that its methods might be universally applicable. Ducorneau's own tactics are scarcely less probing. She writes double-jointed scenes that allow the viewer to chuckle or cringe as they desire even while driving home some new observation about the love-hate relationship many youngsters now have with their bodies. Raw offers, among other ordeals, the most gruesomely amusing waxing sequence since 2005's The 40-Year-Old Virgin, simultaneously illustrating just what a painful procedure hair removal is, while commenting on how weird it is that society should have normalised something so excruciating. (Alex to Justine, the definition of a bad example: "C'mon. We all do it.")

For Justine, dining off-menu and after hours becomes a means of testing her limits, much as Ducorneau looks to be testing ours. It's clear from this debut that the filmmaker already knows how to work a close-up to maximum effect - or, at least, how to fill it with quivering, lacerated or otherwise traumatised flesh, which is to underline that sensitive viewers should probably avert their gaze. Still, her accomplishments here feel every bit as human as they are visceral: her script establishes a properly complicated relationship between the two girls - Alex never there for Justine emotionally, as she's always away with her arm up a cow's behind or suchlike; the pair of them cursed by a condition that may just run in the family, giving them more in common than perhaps they know - which pays off with a bitey catfight and a realisation that the clan that dines together stays together. It's a lively chewing over of big themes and issues rather than a serious digest, and there will doubtless be trained medical professionals who take against the film for that. Yet even they won't be able to deny the bloody, savage, hard-to-forget images that Raw keeps spitting out: these 100 minutes suggest Ducorneau's already developed a real taste for cinema - and, heaven help us all, an ability to go right for the helpless onlooker's throat when she needs to.

Raw opens in cinemas nationwide on Friday.   

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