Raw (Ducournau; 2016)

The major Hollywood films this week are Smurfs: Lost Village and Going in Style, the movie about three octogenarians robbing a bank which really just looks to be an excuse for Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, and Alan Arkin to get a paycheck.  I’m guessing these films already have a built in audience, while I admit to having no desire to see either of them, I would have if I thought either could aspire to be anything more than they appear and they should be written about.  Given their April releases and lack of critic preview screenings, however, I’m guessing that my instincts were absolutely on target.  Therefore, I decided I’d challenge myself a bit by seeing a French horror movie which has been getting some critical buzz, and challenge myself I did.  That challenge is the focus of this review.

The average moviegoer definitely has a niche they love and will seek out, whether that be action movies, comic book flicks, romantic comedies, animated films, and so on.  In their chosen genre, they will love nearly anything thrown their way, but if a film falls outside of their favored genre then our hypothetical average Joe will complain and complain about all the reboots, sequels, overused plots and actors, and the general lack of creativity in Hollywood overall.   Here are the top 10 U.S. box office grossing films of 2016:

  1. Finding Dory ($486.2 million)
  2. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story ($425 million)
  3. Captain America: Civil War ($408 million)
  4. The Secret Life of Pets ($368.4 million)
  5. The Jungle Book ( $364 million)
  6. Deadpool ($363 million)
  7. Zootopia ($341.2 million)
  8. Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice ($330.3 million)
  9. Suicide Squad ($325.1 million)
  10. Doctor Strange ($230.1 million)

mv5bmjmyota4nja2nl5bml5banbnxkftztgwmjq1ody2mti-_v1_

Here we have five superhero movies, four family friendly “animated” movies (animated in quotes because I’m counting The Jungle Book as one of the four), six sequels (and only two of those sequels being only the second in a series), and all but one is based on a property that existed before the movie was made.  This is not a commentary on the creativity, intelligence, nor quality of these films as a whole, I loved quite a few of these and while I felt quite a few weren’t all that great, none made a worst of the year list of any kind for me.  I also understand that families are the biggest market for films purely because it’s something they can do together and there is by definition more than two of them.  But, one thing these films have in common is that they present no challenge to the viewer whatsoever (I’ll grant you the exception of Zootopia on that, but I think that was more of a pleasant surprise than something which was expected of it and sought out by audiences).  In fact, if you look down the list of top grossing films you have to go all the down to number 31, and Arrival, before you find a film that truly presents any kind of challenge to its viewer.  This is exactly why Hollywood keeps giving you the same familiar movies over and over again.  Because those are the movies you watch.

With that information as a guide, Raw should be a film that no one sees.  I’m going to use the word challenging yet again to describe this movie, and I’m sure I will again, because at it’s core that is what this movie is and does.  It’s themes are complex, realistic, and difficult to completely unravel, it gives us relationships that are not typical, that don’t fit normal movie tropes, but seem all the more real for it, and it is hard to simply watch at times very literally with images that are bloody, uncomfortable, and grotesque.  The original title of this film was Grave, and I am glad it was changed because that single word Raw is a perfect description of what this movie is both on a literal and a metaphorical level.

mv5bmddmzmmxngutmgvlzs00njlmltkzn2utzwi0yznlodg2mdm4xkeyxkfqcgdeqxvynjewntm2mzc-_v1_sy1000_cr0014981000_al_

Raw is about Justine (Garrance Marillier) the younger of two siblings who has been raised in a family of vegetarian veterinarians. The film starts with her being dropped of by her parents (Laurent Lucas and Joana Preiss) at the medical school her sister Alexia (Ella Rumpf) already attends.  After quickly meeting her new roommate (“I asked for a girl.” “You got a gay.  To these people that’s the same thing.”) Adrien (Rabah Nait Oufella) the hazing begins immediately as the older students begin terrorizing the “rookies” in a sort of friendly, sort of legitimately scary way, and after one of the hazing rituals in which lifelong vegetarian Justine is forced to eat a raw rabbit kidney, Justine finds herself changing and developing appetites she never knew she had.

Raw is billed as a horror movie, and while I won’t argue with that descriptor as this is a tense, gory, at times sadistic move, I would describe it as a coming of age movie which just happens to use horror as a vehicle to describe the transition into adulthood metaphorically rather than the more literal story telling typically used in a coming of age film.  On its surface, Raw is about a cannibal at a veterinarian college and the themes seem to be statements about meat being murder and how we can become addicted to the slaughter involved in the meat industry to the point where it becomes more impulse than conscious thought, and those are absolutely relevant themes in the film.  But, looking even deeper this is really a story about family, particularly siblings, and how we bring out both the best and the worst in each other and how much our family determines who we are even in ways we could never suspect.

While nothing in Raw is the pinnacle of artistry, everything here is well done.  The incredibly intelligent script is the best thing on display here, even if the dialogue is a bit clunky at times, the visuals are rarely art, but damn are they effective and change up styles effortlessly where needed adding to the tension and creepiness of the movie, and the acting is all well done, though in this case well done is better than most horror films and none of the performances reach any inspired level.

mv5bmzfjyzqwyzetotawzi00zgq1lwjmytatmtq3ymy5yje4otkyl2ltywdlxkeyxkfqcgdeqxvynjewntm2mzc-_v1_

My final take:   If you want a movie that challenges you in nearly every way a movie can, then Raw is absolutely a film that needs to be seen.  Every scene in this film has layer upon layer of subtext with relevant, uncomfortable themes bursting forth in every image and every added plot point.  But, be wary that this film is utterly grotesque and unflinching.  I guarantee you that at least some things in this movie will make you uncomfortable, and for the more squeamish out there you may have trouble looking at the screen at all for large chunks of the movie.  A further warning is that since this takes place at a veterinary school there are injured and dead animals in the movie, and I know that will bother many.  I don’t expect many to go see this film, I expect them to skip over this one while griping that movies never do anything original anymore.  Well, here you go.  Raw is well made, really smart, and completely original.  Now’s your chance.  It’s time for the American general audiences to put up or shut up, even though I know they won’t do either, and I actually understand the reasons why they won’t.

Elle (Verhoeven; 2016)

The first thing we see in Elle is the face of a charcoal colored cat staring straight ahead as we hear sexual noises coming from off screen.  The noises stop and we cut to two people lying on the hardwood floor of a kitchen, the man is wearing all black, including a ski mask, he stands zipping up his pants and runs off as the woman remains lying on the floor in an obvious state of shock.  It occurs to us immediately that what had just happened was a rape, but we don’t witness the rape, we start the story immediately afterward.  This is a brilliant opening as we aren’t focused on the act itself, but rather we get to exist in the aftermath alongside our protagonist Michéle LeBlanc (Isabelle Huppert).

Isabelle Huppert gives a performance here that can only be described as sublime.  Elle deals with a very sensitive topic in a fashion more nuanced than most people think is possible and the handling of that topic hinges entirely on Huppert’s performance.  Not only does she prove to be up to the task, she gives us a character that can somehow horrify and inspire us at the same time, someone who we have all the sympathy in the world for even as we find her repellent to a nearly equal degree.  It’s rare that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences honors an actor in a non-American film, but there is a lot of buzz surrounding Isabelle Huppert for this year’s ceremony, and well there should be. This is not just a fully formed, well thought out character with a massive amount of depth, but it’s also a performance and a character that has to express mixed and uncomfortable feelings about a nearly untouchable hot topic issue, and she does this as well with grace, maturity, and style without even a hint of apology.1200

Why should there be an apology?  Well, there shouldn’t, but this film deals with its oh=so touchy themes in a manner that nearly everyone could be offended on some level.  It portrays a 50 year-old woman as a still very sexual person, so sexual that her rape is more about her safety at home than about her feeling violated.  She is shown to be a powerful woman, she runs a video game company and the game they are currently working on is one which shows images and scenes which would work feminists angry at the video game industry into an absolute tizzy, and she sleeps with whomever she wants whenever she wants and thinks nothing of it until her dalliance may ruin a friendship or working relationship somewhere down the road.  In short, she is a woman who acts just like rich men are perceived and portrayed in the media and in culture today.  So the rape doesn’t affect her and isn’t treated in the story in a stereotypical way.  Michéle does feel violated, yes, and she does want to find her attacker, but she is never a victim, and not just due to keeping up a tough outer exterior, she honestly never feels like one.  The thought that must have been put into the character of Michéle really shows as we see her as the most rich, powerful, sexual, and confident person in a world populated almost entirely by men, and that not only gives us many different motives to consider, but also allows for a plot that can flow naturally without the writer and director having to search for coincidences and contrivances to move events along.

The early plot of Elle involves the investigation into who performed the rape, bringing to the forefront many of the possible motivations in the mind of a rapist.  We suspect an ex-husband who feels slighted, an employee who is angry at her for the way she is running the company, a spurned admirer, and the list continues.   More important than the mind of the potential rapists, however, is the mind of Michéle herself.  In exploring the aftermath of a vicious crime there isn’t just one possible response despite what Hollywood often makes us think.  Michéle does not go to the police, she does not change her personal nor professional life much at all except to try and reason out who her attacker could be, she is very casual in her mentioning of the crime to her friends and family.  This is not a Lifetime channel style response to a rape, and this is where a great deal of the shock and heart of Elle lives, in the fact that this movie does not rely on stereotype and expectations but on using the flaws, strengths, quirks, perversions, and humanity of its characters to give us a far more real story than we are used to seeing, particularly when a plot involving a touchy subject is on display.

Past this point, I am going to mention specific plot points of Elle that could lead to your figuring out the central mystery of the movie before it is revealed.  I will not spoil the movie, but I will be giving major clues, so read more at your own risk.

elle-1200x520

If it’s the incredibly complex and true characters and their responses that make the plot of Elle what it is, though, the true themes of the film rear their head going into the final third of the film.   Roughly two thirds of the way through the film the identity of the rapist is discovered, and we find that it is a man Michéle has been attracted to all along, and rather than changing her relationship with this man, it just changes her method of seduction, as she now uses the knowledge of the nature of their relationship she has to move the dynamic from coy and playful to something more perverse, dangerous, and reliant on power dynamics.  Michéle is such a powerful woman so in touch with her own sexual nature that all the rape ultimately does is change the way she flirts with her rapist.  It is from here on that we see that the film really isn’t about rape at all, nor really even about sex, but about power.  Michéle is such a powerful person that even something as devastating as a rape can’t take her confidence away from her, it just becomes another tool she uses to get what she wants.

That is the final piece of the puzzle in Elle and what it wants to say.  Once we see that it’s ultimately about power we understand why we have a protagonist who is so unsympathetic in a film that seems like it demands sympathy to work.  Michéle is a seriously flawed person.  She betrays those closest to her, she sabotages others’ lives to get her way or often just because she can, she gives no thought to the feelings and desires of those around her, Michéle is very much a textbook sociopath.  Yet, she is also the victim of the most heinous crime which leaves its victim alive afterward and this naturally makes us sympathetic to her.   If this were any other film which began in any other way Michéle would almost certainly be the villain, but Elle is a film brave enough to go into places so dark in such a well thought out way that we get to experience the life of a sociopath through the eyes of a sociopath, and who ever sees themselves as the villain of their own story?

maxresdefault

Final recommendation:  Elle is one of the bravest, no-nonsense films I have ever seen.  I really do not think this film could have been made in Hollywood for a great many reasons.  It has an older female protagonist very much in touch with her sexuality, power, and desires.  It’s a film that shows there is a more fine line between misogyny and feminism than one would ever expect, and I still can’t say with any authority which side of that line this film falls on.  It’s a film that brazenly displays the relationship between sex and power unapologetically.  This is a dark, dark film that is often very funny, often uncomfortable, and always challenging.  If you are not up for a challenge, if you just feel the need for entertainment, then this is not one to watch, but if you want to see something that will make you rethink sexual politics and power, something truly provacative, Elle is an absolute must see.