Julia Ducournau’s Raw was my 14th and final film at 2016’s edition of Fantastic Fest. Byy the time I slinked into my seat on that Sunday evening, all the movies I had ingested were beginning to bleed into each other. Yet as I sat there watching this strong debut from a new French talent that should be on everyone’s radar, I could not help but feel like I had seen the film before — and at the festival.
Thematic programming can be both an intentional facet of festival organizing or a serendipitous collision of similarities. Had my mind not gone full festival brain, I might have recalled that just two days earlier, I saw Ana Lily Amirpour’s The Bad Batch which also prominently featured a group of cannibals. But that obvious connection to Ducournau’s college-set tale of a cannibalistic freshman trying to mask her flesh-devouring desires did not occur to me. Instead, I began seeing similarities to a movie of a very different ilk.
I drew parallels with Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann, the German comedy of manners that set the Croisette ablaze at this year’s Cannes Film Festival and then made a bit of a head-scratching appearance at Fantastic Fest. In the official program, James Emanuel Shapiro even admitted as much: “While Fantastic Fest is a ‘genre’ film festival, the programmers are given a wide definition of what they can bring to the FF audience. So while FORCE MAJEURE and now TONI ERDMANN aren’t what we normally think of as ‘genre’ films, the programmers must still share them because they’re just simply too good not to.”
Indeed, I left the screening of Toni Erdmann on Friday undeniably impressed by the craftsmanship but with a nagging sense that the film makes more sense for a festival crowd in Telluride or New York. When sandwiched between a hagiographic documentary about movie poster collecting and a surreal desert survival story, Ade’s slow-burning father and daughter tale cannot help but feel like an outlier. Leave it to nubile cannibals to make sense of an international critical phenomenon!
Both films, at their core, are dark comedies that force women into uncomfortable settings to address the way in which they unhealthily suppress their true selves. In Toni Erdmann, that’s Sandra Hüller’s Ines, a German consultant in serious danger of dissolving into her pantsuit while on a year-long assignment in Bucharest to validate a large corporation’s decision to outsource jobs to the fringes of the EU. Raw, on the other hand, begins with a familiar premise: Garance Marillier’s teenaged Justine arrives timidly to school, unnerved at the prospect of finding a place amongst her peers during customary freshman hazing rituals. Cannibalism functions less like a piece of social commentary and more like a kind of personal affect we all have to distinguish ourselves in ignominious ways. As a result of the nerves that stem from her condition, Justine dulls herself down to a bland, nondescript entity.
Each woman has a valid reason to mask an essential component of their youthful identities. Ines grew up with a prankster of a father, Peter Simonischek’s Winfried, and was likely a vibrant, jocular person at some point in the distant past. But in the sterile boardrooms, where she is already at a disadvantage from casual sexism and misogyny, Ines puts in overtime to leave little room for client judgment on anything other than the facts. Justine’s predicament is a little direr – she comes from a family with cannibalistic tendencies who abstain from eating meat to further ensure their tendencies are not inflamed. The arcane rituals of her particularly veterinary school, which both her parents attended, provides ample opportunities for her front of normalcy to come tumbling down. Their seemingly safe passage through the trials provides only cold comfort for Justine.
Whatever hesitation or vacillation these women exhibit gets shaken up by an elder relative. In Toni Erdmann, Ines gets a seismic shock when Winfried shows up unannounced to visit as she prepares for a particularly stressful presentation. Not content to simply sightsee, he dons various wigs, crooked teeth and personas designed to rattle his daughter’s cages. By adopting the guise of Toni Erdmann, a scraggly-looking straight shooter, he highlights Ines’ own rigidness and lack of humanity. Ironically, it is his malapropisms and blunders that resonate most with the stakeholders Ines most needs to impress.
For Justine in Raw, however, the discomfiting nudge comes courtesy of her older sister, Ella Rumpf’s Alexia. Just a year older and a class ahead, the eldest sibling seems to have comfortably situated her home identity within this scholastic context. When Justine balks at participating in the standard traditions, Alexia begins devising situations that demand her sister reckon with those inner inclinations. The verve of their sororal rivalry shows as these escalations grow increasingly risky for the concealment of their secret.
Neither Winfried nor Alexia mean their provocations with any malice or intent to humiliate. Rather, they are practicing a kind of reverse mortification, instructing their loved ones to stop relying on hollow social archetypes to imbue their lives with meaning. They know something about their family member that no colleague or classmate ever could and love someone behind the façades they present to the world. The wish for the protagonists of both Toni Erdmann and Raw is that they regain touch with their inner compass and become self-reliant on it once again.
These tests of Ines and Justine’s capacity for denial break down along genre lines. Toni Erdmann gains energy on comedic set pieces that gradually evolve from droll trickery to outright absurdism, while Raw draws on body horror tropes ranging from rash-scratching to flesh munching. But whether belting out a power ballad in front of a stunned dinner crowd or indulging in the blood from a severed finger – a segue only possible at a place like Fantastic Fest – the raw emotion remains the same. These women are paralyzed when they try to force fit their unique personalities into narrow expectations and stereotypes. When urged to embrace what makes them who they are, they find acceptance, satisfaction and relief.
Curiously, neither film offers much confidence that these soaring moments of self-realization are anything more than moments. Without spoiling any specifics about their respective endings, Raw hints at the need for compromises to continue living as one’s authentic self while Toni Erdmann all but rejects the permanence of spontaneity or clarity. These crashes back into a messy reality invoke how the rise and fall of a plot arc represents a merely synthetic change. Actual transformation takes more than just giving into a gut response spurred by familial intervention. At Fantastic Fest, that hard truth can be funny or frightening depending on which auditorium you enter.
Follow Marshall Shaffer on Twitter (@media_marshall).
Categories: 2016 Film Essays, Featured, Film Essays