France/Belgium (2016) Dir. Julia Ducournau
Having already been familiar with the synopsis of this French/Belgian film and going by the first 20 minutes or so, my initial summation was “Like Animal House with the emphasis on Animal”. Little did I know that I would regret such premature flippancy.
Teenage vegetarian and aspiring vet Justine (Garance Marillier) arrives at the veterinarian school where her parents (Laurent Lucas and Joana Preiss) met and her older sister Alexia (Ella Rumpf) currently attends. With gay male roommate Adrien (Rabah Naït Oufella) being her first surprise, Justine struggles to keep her head during the traditional rookie hazing week not even Alexia can save her from.
The first ritual involves being doused in animal blood then made to eat a raw rabbit kidney which, as a vegetarian, Justine refuses. When Alexia won’t back her up, Justine is forced to eat it and develops a nasty allergic rash across her body in response. Shortly after it clears up Justine is constantly consumed by a craving for raw meat which leads her to satiate her hunger in a pretty horrific way.
As coming-of-age yarns go this is quite something. It’s more allegorical than traditional as you may have already surmise but the themes driving it are unmistakably on point – the sexual awakening of a teenager whose hunger for pleasure of the flesh is more primal than carnal. Or maybe writer-director Julia Ducournau is a strict vegetarian on a mission to convert meat eaters by turning our guts inside out.
Earlier I suggested a comparison to the classic “gross out” comedy National Lampoon’s Animal House, which wrote the rule book for the genre, in response to this vet school being more of a playground for unruly delinquents who seem to be in charge instead the teachers, than a learning centre for the next generation of animal doctors.
Similar to the US frat houses where bullying jocks haze wannabe pledges, the rookies here are woken up on their first night by masked yobs trashing their rooms and throwing their mattresses out of the window before marched to an underground party of unspeakable decadence. As per the code of this apparent tradition, rookies must refer to any senior as “Great Ones” and obey other derisory and demeaning orders.
It’s hardly a surprise any of the students seem capable of learning anything but Justine is something of a progeny with a reputation that precedes her, which it is revealed, has little to do with Alexia. Justine is shocked when Alexia publicly denies the family’s vegetarianism, effortlessly eating a rabbit kidney to convince Justine to play along; in fact, Alexia is less like the sister Justine knew from before.
The growing pains symbolism of Justine’s body rash, complete with peeling blotchy skin is a visually grotesque parallel for the first exposure of adult indulgences for an unready teenager, but like all additions that stem from it, this direct approach is justified. Supplanting drugs, alcohol and sex with meat may seem to undermine the gravity of the message and is in danger of being a vessel for veggie proselytising, but Ducournau is out to get our attention.
Justine’s cravings are exponential, beginning with a meat sandwich then a piece of raw chicken in the fridge but it is after an accident in which Alexia accidentally cuts a finger off with a pair of scissors (long story) that Justine realises where her ultimate fix lies. But as the need for flesh grows and the free availability of it proves a problem, Justine’s under goes a dark personality change that Alexia recognises all too well.
Calling this a horror film is partially accurate if one equates horror with gore, of which there is a sufficient amount but not in abundance. It is the sparse use of blood and ripped flesh that makes it so effective, while the sight of people eating human flesh is always going to upset an audience (one cinema in the US had staff with sick bags handy just in case).
Even with such squeamish delights, trust the French to turn it into something sexual where other nations might prefer the restraint of subtle sensuality. Justine is a virgin yet her new meat suffused self is apparently dynamic and powerful enough to turn gay roomy Adrien into a willing partner and ends up being Justine’s first, in a scene of frenzied, animalistic and, very aptly, raw sex.
Ducournau’s clever, multi-layered script spends a lot of time laying the groundwork for future occurrences if one pays close attention to the dialogue. In an early scene, Justine debates the rights of an animal versus a human’s with another student, saying they all should be treated equally; later on, under the spell of her meat-craving hunger, Justine the subject of a humiliating video literally behaving like an animal in a nightclub.
Justine holds Alexia responsible for this as well as the suffering she endures when, as the older sister, she could have helped he avoid it. This sibling relationship is explored in a way that is both conventional in cinematic terms yet reflective of real life, a dichotomy rarely achieved. The pay off in the film’s denouement puts this into perspective while answering another question about the parents, should anyone notice their personalities.
In her debut role, Garance Marillier impresses greatly with a bold and confident turn as Justine, essaying the delicate fragility of her character with nuanced pathos, whilst the tortured lost innocence of her savage alter ego is sexy and dangerous yet achingly sympathetic. Ella Rumpf’s portrayal as Alexia is essentially the finished product of Justine’s journey but with a spiky, nihilistic sense of resignation which, if she was able to reconcile within herself, would make her seem more redeemable.
As the other major debutant here, Ducournau also opens many eyes as one to watch with this assured, well-crafted and exquisitely presented slice of lurid, uncompromising provocation. Raw by name, Raw by nature; a real feast – if you can stomach it…