A refreshingly Raw take on teen horror 

If you generally don't care for horror films, or you don't have the patience for subtitles, or you're terrified of your own sexuality, or you just can't stomach watching teens engaged in cannibalism, then Raw might not be the picture for you. For everyone else, spending Friday night at the Roxy with writer and director Julia Docournau's French-language bloodfest is right where you need to be.

Raw stars Garance Marillier as Justine, whom we meet when her parents and the family dog drop her off on her first day of veterinary school. (This is a horror film, so whenever a dog is introduced in the first act you've got to ask yourself a tough but essential question: Is the dog going to be OK?)

Justine's older sister, Alexia (Ella Rumpf), already attends (she's in her second year), and the sisters' parents both graduated from the same academy. An entire family of veterinarians, and they're all vegetarians to boot. Nothing weird about that!

The school looks a bit like a prison, with several stories connected by M.C. Escher-like staircases leading to sterile, concrete common areas. And yet, as it turns out, this is quite the party school. An insane hazing ritual quickly interrupts Justine's first night in the dorms, wherein mattresses are thrown out of windows and the upperclassman force the young, scared newcomers to party all night in their underwear. It sounds innocent enough, but something about the claustrophobic, frightening way these scenes are shot has the expert effect of putting us on edge, even before the carnage begins.

click to enlarge Smells like food poisoning.
  • Smells like food poisoning.

Justine arrives to the academy waifish, intelligent and shy. She's a far cry from Alexia, who's outgoing, iconoclastic and a tad goth, and these differences between the sisters will reverberate throughout the picture. The trouble begins when Justine is forced to eat a dead baby rabbit as part of her freshman initiation. She resists at first, but her sister wears her down. The dead rabbit might as well be the apple in Eve's garden—what on earth has this taste of flesh unleashed?

Fundamentally, what we have here is a coming-of-age story drawn in blood. Justine is becoming a woman, and oh my word, is that not terrifying? The horror genre has a long tradition of male directors feeding off of such sexual hysteria (It Follows and The Witch are just two recent examples). Here, with a woman at the helm, we get a refreshing usurping of the male gaze. Consider Justine's roommate, for example. She's paired up with a handsome gay man named Adrien (Rabah Nait Oufella), and good lord, did I mention how stunning he is? Notice how the camera lingers on his body for an uncomfortable amount of time as Justine watches him play soccer. An American film would have quickly embarrassed itself and ruined the moment with fast cuts and a blaring soundtrack. But European cinema understands that a lingering camera evokes sensuality.

Raw is a bizarre, sexy film with a healthy dose of humor about itself.

By the way, you may have heard that at the film's premiere in Sweden, some filmgoers were driven out of the theater with nausea and vomiting. How lucky for them, to have a film be so affecting! I gagged a little bit, but what are movies for if not to literally make you ill?

Montana Film Festival presents Raw Friday, June 16, at 9 PM.

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