Sex. Death. Strong female characters. That alone could be the description for any number of Buffy The Vampire Slayer episodes. They’re also the key identifiers to one of this year’s sleeper hits – Raw. The French flick made a huge splash on the international film festival circuit in 2016, with critics at certain screenings passing out, vomiting in the cinema or having to rush out of the theatre due to having such extreme reactions to what was on screen. Rolling in to cinemas worldwide throughout 2017, it’s quickly chewing its way on to many peoples ‘best of the year’ lists before December has even arrived. And there’s a reason for that. In a genre that can be particularly tough for women to love, Raw brings a much-needed female voice to the horror equation.
Raw, in many ways, is the natural successor to Buffy The Vampire Slayer, which over a seven year run used the conventions of horror as a way to tell female-centric stories about growing up (there was also a cannibal-ish episode too, in Doublemeat Palace). The supernatural series took a strong allegorical approach to using genre tropes as metaphors: think the universal teenage fear of not being heard or understood manifesting physically in invisibility with Out Of Mind, Out Of Sight from season one. Arguably one of Buffy’s biggest story arcs involved losing your virginity to someone you think you love, who actually turns out to be a monster. In the context of the show, that male object of affection literally turns evil post-coitus in season two’s Innocence (which laid the groundwork for some of the best storytelling Buffy The Vampire Slayer ever did). In Raw, consumption – whether that be of other people sexually or of other people edibly – is a catalyst for growing into the woman you’re supposed to be. Cannibalism isn’t used subtly: take a scene where Justine dances provocatively in the mirror to the tune Bitchier Than Any Bitches, a French rap song from twin sisters the Orties about murdering men after growing sick of their sexist bullshit.
Written and directed by Julia Ducournau, Raw follows recent high-school graduate Justine as she navigates her way through the extreme hazing rituals of a veterinarian college that her older sister, Alexa, currently attends and which her parents have already graduated from. The less you know after that, the better as Justine begins to deal with a burgeoning hunger during her transition from girlhood to outright woman. Turns out, it’s a hunger that runs in her family. Raw is an unapologetic feminist film, being not only a story told by women but for women. Its messages are something that ladies across the spectrum have been relating to. Even Hollywood heroines have been embracing it, such as Gemma Arterton who is no stranger to feminist horror movies having starred in both Byzantium and The Girl With All The Gifts. “Raw, oh my God … I absolutely loved it,” laughs the British actress. “I went and saw that with a friend and it’s such an onslaught of everything. I’m not that great with gore usually, but everything about it was fantastic. It’s quite extreme.”
Yet besides the gore and gross-out moments, both Raw and Buffy are at their hearts stories about sisterhood. While Buffy’s little sister Dawn didn’t make her mystical entry until season five, that year’s 22 episodes were all about exploring and challenging the idea of female families. It manifested in one of the standout season finales, The Gift. Raw’s central relationship between Justine and Alexa is just as complicated as Buffy and Dawn’s, with blood also being a central ingredient.
Sisterhood is something that has perhaps been examined most interestingly through the genre of horror, with Japan’s A Tale Of Two Sisters and Mama being notable entries. There’s fellow cannibal flick We Are What We Are as well, but 2000’s Ginger Snaps is the closest in allegiance to Raw. It uses lycanthropy as a metaphor for puberty, with Brigitte watching her sister Ginger navigate the perils of her first period only to realise she’s actually becoming a werewolf. Ginger Snaps got three entries as a horror franchise, with the sisters enduring relationship at the centre of the trilogy. Like its hairy cousin and vampire slaying predecessor, Raw takes a magnifying to the complex nature of sisterhood where you can love and hate one another simultaneously. It’s just one of dozens of threads the French film tugs at during its tight one hour and 40 minute runtime, yet it stays with you. The violent and visceral images Raw presents eventually fade to the background and you’re left with the taste of a tricky and skillful look at the metamorphosis of femininity.
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SBS VICELAND, Wednesday 25 October at 11:05pm
France, Belgium, 2017
Genre: Drama, Horror
Director: Julia Ducournau
What's it about?
In Justine’s family everyone is a vet and a vegetarian. At 16, she’s a gifted teen ready to take on her first year in vet school, where her older sister also studies. There, she gets no time to settle: hazing starts right away. Justine is forced to eat raw meat for the first time in her life. Unexpected consequences emerge as her true self begins to form.