Pound for pound, minute for minute, per capita, or however you want to say it, I’d suggest the French are making the best horror films in the world at the moment and have been (on and off) for at least a decade. The US and Australian output, while sometimes great, is marred by an enormous amount of derivative drivel. The UK has some excellent years, and with Under The Shadow. Iran is in the game. But the French slate has consistently better production values, acting, and thematic depth. Even at its grisliest (and it can be brutally grisly), French horror often has something to say.
Grave (“Raw”), the debut feature from Julia Ducournau, certainly does. Within its perverse take on coming-of-age, it examines peer pressure, burgeoning sexuality, academic tradition, accepted modes of living and social acceptance, while also being a mesmerising, totally compelling – and, yes, grisly – thrill ride. It’s high-octane, thrilling, compelling stuff that had me transfixed and excited.
Justine (Garance Marillier) comes from a family of vegetarians who enrolls in veterinary college and must endure, along with her fellow intake of students, a week of hazing. Her older sister Alexia (Ella Rumpf) is already at the college, and the difficult dynamic between them during this intense and nerve-wracking time forms the spine of the film. Alexia’s split allegiances – to her sister and to her status as a higher-classman – are difficult enough, but there are deeper and vastly more troubling secrets she is wary of sharing.
Marillier’s performance is totally enthralling; she’s in every scene and navigates Garance’s jagged carnal awakening with both nuance and a sense of heightened,grand guignol performance when called on by the script, which is not afraid of lurid grotesquery. Rumpf is no less committed and compelling, and there’s also an excellent performance from Rabah Nait Oufella as Justine’s dorm-mate.
Ducournau goes all-out with her imagery and use of a fantastically creepy score by Jim Williams, who scored Ben Wheatley’s Kill List, Sightseers and A Field in England. She creates visual moments that immediately brand themselves onto your psyche and sequences that are simply unforgettable. The story, as it unfurls, simultaneously bears a sense of inevitability but is also constantly surprising, and packs a supremely satisfying climax.
I am thrilled beyond measure to be witness to the cinematic birth of a new, young voice in articulate, emotionally rich, cinematically rigorous horror cinema. I am ravenous for whatever Ducournau does next – and to feast on Raw again.