French mental health in horror: a review of ‘Raw’ (part one)

Over Christmas, my cousin mentioned having seen a film recently called Raw by French director Julia Decournau. My aunt and uncle’s immediate reactions were to express disgust as they remembered their viewing experience, calling the film “nauseating” to watch. As a horror fan, I was instantly intrigued. Called Grave in its original French, Raw tells the story of a vegetarian student, Justine, coming to study at the same university as her sister, Alexia. She is forced to consume raw meat for the first time in her life. Cannibalism ensues.

It’s a Franco-Belgian production with the plot taking place in a Veterinary school in French-speaking Belgium. The disturbing elements of the film show primarily through its use of realism. As a French person, I found the conversations between the students to reflect almost exactly the conversations I observed between my own classmates back in France. The characters use a mix of Argot and Verlan, two forms of French slang, as they use the typical idiosyncrasies found in most native French speakers.

The tone of the movie is very natural, with somewhat realistic depictions of hazing and partying as well as the atmosphere of French universities. Medical schools especially are well known for overworking their students and putting high pressure on them to succeed, filling their every hour of time outside class with work to do. The partying and hazing stands out as the only time of freedom the students are given. This extremely mundane setting in a French context makes the anticipation of horror all the more disturbing as the audience expects some sort of tragedy to befall these hyperrealistic characters.

The realism of the movie is a horror in and of itself as well. Yes, there is the cannibalism that follows, but already before the gore is introduced, there is an element of horror underlying typical French social norms. The characters joke about the topic of rape and mental illness with clearly no knowledge about general mental health. A nurse tells Justine about a plus size girl who was refused treatment by several medical professionals for no legitmate reason other than her size. These scenes don’t add much to the plot, but they highlight persisting problems in France relating to mental health, especially eating disorders. In 2015, France banned anorexic models in the hopes that this would help combat our national problem with eating disorders, but the culture persists. 

Decournau’s critique of French society shines through her depiction of everyday conversation being seen through a lens of horror. Through the audience’s anticipation of horror, every scene is tinged with a certain tension, allowing spectators to suddenly be thrown aback by how casually these teenagers speak about anorexia and rape and depression, treating these serious disorders as punchlines. What would be an everyday bit of banter between friends in France is thrown into a more sinister light.

The cinematography builds tension as well, notably with its shot of university freshers crawling on all fours silently in the middle of the night as their second year guides watch on. Mundane actions that unnerve are used to create in the audience a sense of discomfort. We watch Justine develop a disgusting rash after eating food, the sound of her scratching amplified in the silence until we squirm. The first scene of cannibalism in the film begins with Alexia giving her sister a Brazilian wax. Wax strips being laid down and ripped off in such a sensitive area already sets the audience on edge. When one strip gets stuck, the audience is practically rocking in their seat.

The cannibalism itself is treated in a very unsettling manner, with Justine eating her sister’s finger like a drumstick. The film itself starts off with a car crash caused by a stranger running across the road, seemingly almost with the intent to make the car swerve. We see Alexia do the same thing later, causing yet another vehicle to run off the road, killing its occupants so she can feast on their faces. The ease with which she accomplishes this is unnerving, giving the audience the feeling this is something she’s done so often she’s used to it.

A particularly gruesome scene occurs after Justine has had a lot to drink. Her sister dangles a corpse’s arm above a drunk Justine’s snapping teeth before a crowd of jeering students. The scene is shown through the low camera quality of Justine’s roommate’s phone. This found footage style gives the scene a disturbing edge to it, Justine appearing almost inhuman as she snaps at the corpse, her eyes dead and her body folded on all fours like a dog.

Image: Jazz Guy on Flickr.

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