There’s a new A-list of female directors building in the horror genre, and that’s a very exciting development. It includes Ana Lily Amirpour, Karyn Kusama, Jennifer Kent, just to name just a few, and it makes sense. If women writer/directors want to subvert expectation in the film industry, create an audience that isn’t skewed towards either sex, and tell a story that has room for layered meaning and depth, horror is a great place to do it. With that in mind, let me introduce you to a potential new entry into the horror film hall of fame.
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Raw or as it’s called in France, GRAVE, has a lot to say about body image, self acceptance, society as consumptive, identity, and coming-of-age as a woman…and that’s a lot to say. Thank Goddess it’s being said through the writer/director voice of Julia Ducournau, who blends an auteur sensibility with the sort of deconstructionist horror that recalls the work of David Cronenberg.
16 year old wunderkind college freshman Justine (Garance Marillier) is starting school at a prestigious veterinary university. From the first night in her dorm, she is thrust into a world of excess and hazing, through initiations that, for one thing, lead to the life-long vegetarian eating a rabbit’s liver raw. Her sister Alexia, who is ahead of her at the same school, and who has been out of contact with the family, doesn’t help things. She’s the one who forces her into the various rituals, from being doused with animal blood to staying up all night binge-drinking and grind-dancing with fellow students. Justine finds herself starting to feel hungry for raw meat. When she doesn’t eat what she craves, her body turns on her in a number of ways, so she starts giving in to her desires. She gives in to her desire for raw meat, for sex, and anything else she feels compelled to experience. Alexia only spurs her on. Things take a dark turn when she has the opportunity to eat human flesh and takes it. Things get darker and more grotesque from there.
How far removed, beyond what is socially acceptable, are the merciless hazing, sexual politics, and peer pressure experienced at colleges, from the idea of people actually sinking their teeth into, drawing blood from, and eating parts of each other? Given the number of universities in the U.S. alone being called out for ignoring sexual assaults, and the leniency the courts show sexual predators, i’d offer, not very. That may or may not be what Ducournau is trying to say, but she does raise a number of questions, depending on your perspective. Certainly she is offering up an anti-heroine to the audience and asking us to, at least in part, remain on her side as she gives in to her impulses.
There’s one question that should resonate with everyone. Once we have gotten a taste of anything seen as “wrong”, or “immoral”, what compels us to continue having it, or worse, seek it out even more? What actions are completely unforgivable, or socially unacceptable, and who gets to decide that? Those are the sorts of themes that I find fascinating as approached by a young female filmmaker, because they are so far off the field of inquiry seen as acceptable for women writing and directing films. Why is that? Regardless of the answer, it’s refreshing to see it investigated onscreen. Those of us who love horror films that reflect societal issues should support it, no matter how much we may risk dry heaving in the process.