French extreme horror

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RAW at the Royal: Angst and the Hungry Girl

Published May 2, 2017 by rmpixie

 

Raw (2016, 1 hr, 39 mins)

Growing up is difficult for most. Learning who you are, what influences you, and nurture versus nature all factor in how you develop as a human being. When family secrets and dysfunction come into play, the “coming of age” process becomes much more complicated. Julia Ducournau’s film Raw takes these factors on with a female perspective, creating a clever blend of genre film and a female driven narrative mixed with some genuinely human moments. This past weekend, I finally got to see this buzzed about film presented by VICE’s Krista Dzialoszynski at the Royal Cinema. I was eager to see exactly what caused some audience members to become ill at TIFF 2016 and other film festivals because of the graphic content, and I wasn’t disappointed.

Justine (Garance Marillier) is a young woman entering her first year of veterinarian school. She is nervous for this next step in her life, but her older sister, Alex (Ella Rumpf) is a student at the same school, and she shows Justine the ropes as the first year students endure rigorous and brutal hazing. She also has the help of her homosexual roommate Adrien (Rabah Nait Oufella), whom she grows attracted to.

Justine is thrown for a loop when she is forced to eat a rabbit’s kidney during a hazing activity. She and her family are vegetarian, so this test changes her whole world with just one swallow. Horrible rashes, painful hunger and a hankering for meat plagues her after she eats the dreaded animal part, making her already difficult adjustment to college life, coping with being an above average student, and her blossoming adulthood even more trying.   A freak accident with her sister pushes her over the blood lust threshold with cannibalistic tendencies, and the discovery of her sister’s secret becomes more than she can bear.  Justine must struggle with her newfound affliction, her inability to fit in and intense sibling rivalry steeped in secrets.

After their Carrie-esque initiation, Justine (Marillier) is fed the fated rabbit kidney by her sister Alex (Rumpf) as Adrien (Oufella) watches. photo credit: Focus World

The discussion after the screening with Krista Dzialoszynski of VICE and the Bloody Mary Film Festival and Alexandra West, author of Films of the New French Extremity: Visceral Horror and National Identity and co-host of the Faculty of Horror podcast touched on female themes such as loss of virginity, menstruation, and the sterilization of all aspects of being a girl and woman in society and film. They applauded Ducournau for showing a coming of age story from a distinctly female perspective. Instead of the “male gaze” of a siren or chaste mother figure, they noted how Ducournau breaks the mold with Justine and her gruesome ordeal; using literal representations of the blood and guts of growing pains. Both Dzialoszynski and West felt that now is the time to show different stories in the genre film scene, and they had high hopes that female and other perspectives outside of the white, male scope will soon become more than a passing fad .

Along with the female rites of passage Dzialoszynski and West discussed, my favourite theme of the film was that of family dysfunction. Justine and Alex’s family dynamic is established with ease and with very little information in the film.  We gather that there is some coddling from their mother, resignation from their father, and a sibling rivalry that becomes increasingly toxic as the sisters blackmail each other with their secrets. This aspect made Justine’s affliction somehow all at once bizarre and relatable.  The normalcy of worried parents, cutting the aprons strings, and vindictive siblings while dealing with being different isn’t hard to believe even though it’s presented in such an extreme way.

Justine’s meat cravings coincide with her sexual maturation as she is free to explore new feelings and experience new things. Her suppressed personality and naivety about the world around her is challenged, especially with her feelings for the out of reach Adrien, and she is forced to confront things outside of her control. Marillier does a stellar job portraying Justine’s uncertainty with this dilemma, as she toils with blazing her own trail, giving in to her animalistic urges, and try to fit into this barely civilized student world. It’s a predicament that many young women face shown in an unusual light. The chemistry between Rumpf and Marillier was also fantastic, creating a believable and twisted bond.

I was surprised by how funny Raw was. Moments that were genuinely human, absurd and silly, like the sisterly act of Alex helping Justine wax her bikini line (with disastrous and life-changing results), or morbid advice from a fellow student with an eating disorder about vomiting techniques were clever and captured the ordeals and pressures of being a young woman without cheap laughs. Ducournau’s skill at integrating these moments seamlessly with horror elements and gore puts her film in equal standing with the classic female coming of age horrors and makes me want to see what else she has to offer.

I also enjoyed the scoring and soundtrack that revolved between electronic music and modern baroque arrangements of organs, harpsichord and strings for the film’s theme song. Once you hear the repetition of the chords, it creates a sweet, almost gut-rot tension that stays with you. It’s no wonder since the composer Jim Williams has made tension building music for Ben Wheatley’s Kill List and Sightseers, two very different but equally twisted films. You’ll also notice the gorgeous cinematography by Ruben Impens. His use of colour was striking, as well as light, shadow and slow motion; giving a dream-like quality to scenes and contrast to the drab backdrop of daily occurrences as a student.

I’m still not sure why people were fainting during previous screenings, but then again, I’m a horror hound and not easily fazed.  In fact, I think it just shows how magnificent the makeup FX team was on this film. While there are some disturbing animal dissection scenes for those who are sensitive or vegetarian (like me), I suggest seeing Raw because of its many layers, as well as the gore and its depiction of the messiness of a young awkward woman’s life that for once isn’t sterilized for mass consumption.

 

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Book Review: Films of the New French Extremity: Visceral Horror and National Identity

Published September 19, 2016 by rmpixie

Films of the New French Extremity: Visceral Horror and National Identity McFarland & Company Inc., 2016

 Films of the New French Extremity:  Visceral Horror and National Identity by Alexandra West ( McFarland & Company Inc., 2016)

Scholars and journalists Alexandra West and Andrea Subissati, hosts of the Faculty of Horror podcast, focus on in-depth analysis of the horror genre with a feminist approach that would sway the staunchest naysayer.  With their knowledge and background, it’s no surprise that West has recently written a book entitled Films of the New French Extremity: Visceral Horror and National Identity and after getting to meet the author herself, I had to buy a copy. Once I flipped past the first page I was hooked.

Films of the New French Extremity: Visceral Horror and National Identity came from a lecture West presented in 2014 for The Black Museum, a series put on by Subissati and Toronto-based writer and editor Paul Corupe where seasoned speakers and professionals in the horror genre present on various topics “from film theory to genre studies”.  It was here that her academic but extremely accessible book was born, and West successfully tracks the transition “from art-house films to full-fledged horror films” that came out of France from the early 90’s to the mid 2000’s.

The genre of New French Extremity is something that for a long time only a few could stomach or relate to. It is brutal, bloody and in your face, but West eases the reader in by giving you a solid base of French history and politics, along with the violence it spawned, in order to help you understand the environment these directors were coming from and the genesis of their films. In essence, French society tended to put a shiny veneer over the ills and wrongs of their actions, turning a blind eye to it all. These films attempt to peel back the shiny exterior of a country celebrated for its culture to show the societal warts that got bigger over centuries. While some of the filmmakers may have different approaches to their subject matter, be it murderous country folk, abused women, self-destructive characters or relentless serial killers, West brings them together to map their contributions to pushing societal, sexual and political boundaries, showing how their films soon became cinematic earmarks as well as social commentaries in the history of horror cinema and what is now considered a critical part of the genre.

Most horror critics and writers like myself have seen many of the films West writes about. I saw them because they were a) French and b) horror or taboo; things I love unconditionally, with Martyrs and High Tension sitting in prime positions on my shelves. They were terrifying films yet I was drawn to them. I couldn’t make connections other than they were all French and showed a darker side to the country I romanticized so much; dots on the same page without the lines to connect them. West is able to create threads of similarities with such coherence and logic, that any French extreme enthusiast feels a sense of almost relief as her analysis pinpoints characters, motivations and plotlines to make sense of the chaos you witness on-screen. All the chapters are riveting, but for those of you who search for some meaning from Martyrs as much as I have, West’s dissection and interpretation of the film comes very near to perfection.

Films of the New French Extremity: Visceral Horror and National Identity will resonate with those who love French Extreme cinema and those who have visited (and fallen in love with) France like myself; becoming lured by the romantic façade of an aloof yet beautiful country, only to scratch the surface revealing the grimy reality underneath.  Steeped in the history and culture of France, West’s book makes these admittedly horrifying films accessible and convey an understanding much like one would study a terrifying beast for meaning. It is truly a must read for any and all horror fans and academics out there looking for a comprehensive guide to the beginnings of French Extreme cinema.

This Wednesday September 21st, The Black Museum will hold a book launch for Films of the New French Extremity: Visceral Horror and National Identity in Toronto where West will do a reading. Check out the details here. Come out to support great Canadian talent!

 

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