The Secret Screening is a yearly tradition at the Philadelphia Film Festival, in which audience members are invited to take a chance by attending a film that remains a mystery until the opening credits roll. This year, the only promise made was that it would be a genre film, and that anyone who didn’t go would be jealous of those who did.
Get ready to be a bit jealous.
This year’s secret screening was Raw, a film that can only be described as a French coming of age cannibal film. It’s easily one of the most disgusting films I’ve ever seen, but it’s also the most thematically rich cannibal film you’re apt to find – going well beyond the standard cannibal flick ethos of “be nice to animals.”
Raw begins as Justine, a lifelong vegetarian, arrives for her first year at an elite veterinary school. She’s set to be the perfect student. She’s focused, smart, and averse to the party life that affects oh so many freshman, but she’s only in her dorm for a few hours before the brutal hazing rituals begin. The upperclassmen dump animal blood on the newbies, force them to crawl on all fours through the streets, and even throw their mattresses out of the dormitory windows. Yet, as assured by Justine’s older sister, a sophomore, it’s all all in good fun, and it’s certainly worth it for the quality education being provided. It’s when Justine partakes in a particularly gruesome ritual – the eating of a raw rabbit’s kidney with a boozy chaser – that she begins to, um, change. And as she starts giving in to newly spawned desires, things get real nasty. Like, rulllllll nasty.
Writer/director Julia Ducournau proves herself to be a clever filmmaker indeed, smoothly balancing humor, eroticism, and the maniacal application of gut-twisting gore, to create a film that, despite being a mash-up of styles from the best of the New French Extremity, is something wholly its own. A lot of why the in-your-face-ness of it all works so well has to do with the narrative ambiguities throughout. Sequences occur that don’t seem to have relevance, or at least exist without sufficient explanation until much later (I imagine this bodes very well for rewatching). Characters behave in bafflingly illogical ways which aren’t given reason until the film’s final moments, yet anytime these idiosyncrasies occur, it’s easy to just go with it. This is a sign of good storytelling – we don’t realize that we’ve been suspending disbelief until after we’ve been let off the hook.
Thematically, there’s an exploration of repression vs. expression, and how this conflict applies to the responsibilities that come with independence. There’s also, as I mentioned before, a coming of age aspect that should resonate with anyone who’s been a young adult as some point in their life. I imagine this would apply doubly for female audiences.
To say much more would be to spoil the fun, but I will say this: if I weren’t already a vegetarian, I would be after watching Raw. It made for such a good late night genre screening. The audience was primed to laugh at even the darkest jokes, while squirming at all the skin-peeling, blood-chugging grue. And afterwards the consensus was a positive one. Lobby chatter indicates we were all in agreement that we had just seen something pretty special. While the Toronto Film Festival boasted that their Raw screening resulted in three audience members passing out, I can attest to at least two walkouts here in Philly. I am happy to report that one of them was sitting right next to me, and when he made the decision to leave, he also made the clear resolution to leave his popcorn behind (his internal struggle was evidenced by a thoughtful gaze at the bucket which ended with a gagging cough). No, I did not eat his popcorn.
Author: Dan Scully
Dan Scully is a film buff and humorist living in a tiny apartment in Philadelphia. He hosts the podcast I Like to Movie Movie and is the proud father to twin cactuses named Riggs & Murtaugh. Also, he doesn’t really mind when Batman kills people. Follow him on Twitter and Letterboxd.