Sundance 2017: 'Raw' + 'XX'
In recent years, Sundance has developed a reputation for showcasing distinct and notable horror films. This year, that prize might well go to Raw by default.
In recent years, Sundance has developed a reputation for showcasing distinct and notable horror films. Back in 2014, it was The Babadook; in 2015 it was The Witch; and last year, it was Under the Shadow. Each year, it appears, the Festival is primed for at least one breakout scare-fest.
This year, that prize might well go to Raw, Julia Ducournau’s film about a cannibal cabal set at a veterinary school. Infamous already for an incident at last year's Toronto International Film Festival -- during which an ambulance had to be called to the theater where it was screening, the film comes to Sundance with a particularly disturbing buzz. However, its inconsistent storytelling keeps it from being much more than an especially peculiar gore-fest.
I’m no expert in Franco veterinary education, but the set-up seems odd. Young Justine (Garance Marillier) arrives at the same school where her parents met, and where her older sister, Alexia (Ella Rumpf), is a senior. Here she’s indoctrinated via a frat-like hell week that involves horrific freshmen hazing. This includes being forced to eat raw rabbit liver, to which Justine, a lifelong vegetarian like the rest of her family, initially balks. Enter Alexia, who persuades her kid sister to eat the meat, which sets off a chain reaction: first Justine’s entire body is covered with a rash, then she can’t stop eating meat compulsively, and eventually, in the film’s most disturbingly memorable scene, she samples human flesh. At this point, there’s no going back.
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The film certainly has a massive gross-out factor -- Justine vomits a long string of hair, it looks like something pulled from a shower drain; a human finger is devoured, the camera lingers on the ecstasy of Justine’s blood-spattered face -- but its politics are a bit of a mish-mash. One could read it as a vegetarian screed, along the lines of, why wouldn’t dedicated carnivores eventually consume themselves? But only the film’s last scene (which reminds me of Teen Wolf) suggests that ethics have something to do with what's come before. Even so, the movie is made with precision and care: from a strictly filmmaking perspective, Ducournau has created an effectively visceral experience, but beyond pointing out the grisly possibilities of eating fingers like chicken wings, its message is pretty garbled.
The subject of food also shows up in the first segment of XX, a horror anthology consisting of four separate pieces, each directed by a woman. That first segment, "The Box", concerns a little boy riding on a train, Danny (Peter DaCunha), who happens to peer into a wrapped parcel in a stranger’s lap (when asked what it is, the elderly man holding it says simply, “It’s a present"). Immediately thereafter, Danny loses his appetite, which worries his father, Robert (Jonathan Watton), though not his oddly desensitized mother, who keeps insisting that nothing is wrong. Days go by with Danny, otherwise perfectly healthy, refusing to eat. Eventually, the boy clues both his sister (Peyton Kennedy) and his dad to the secret, and they also refuse to eat: soon they all begin wasting away.
In an anthology devoid of much in the way of genuine creepiness, Danny's answer to a doctor telling him he’ll die without food (“So?”) serves as a striking moment, the only one of the four chapters that generate anything resembling discomfort in viewers. In Roxanne Benjamin's segment, a silly tribal monster is unleashed upon campers, and Karyn Kusuma's offers a Rosemary’s Baby-riff about a mother whose son is recalled by the devil.
Neither achieves too many high notes, while the fourth entry, from Anne Clark (otherwise known as St. Vincent), doesn’t even try to be scary as much as winsomely odd, like something Tim Burton might have made as a teenager. In this section, on the day of her daughter’s birthday party, Mary (Melanie Lynskey) discovers to her horror that her husband sits dead in his office. Attempting to hide the body so as not to ruin her daughter’s party, Mary eventually stuffs her dead husband into a giant panda bear costume and sits him at the head of the party table. I suppose you might give the film credit for its surreality, but it's simply not clever enough to encourage reflection or even anxiety. If only by default, it appears that Raw will be this year's horror prize-winner.