One of the first things we learn about Justine is that she was raised as a vegetarian and has never strayed. Both her parents are veterinarians, and we meet her as she is about to follow in their footsteps by joining veterinary school. Her older sister has already completed her first year there: a concrete hospital complex in a pale semi-urban area. The film unsettles quickly, as the new arrivals are hazed by the second years, forced through a series of humiliating situations. Under pressure from her peers, Justine has her first taste of meat: the raw liver of a rabbit. Horrible as the experience is, complete with red raw rashes, it sparks in her a shameful curiosity. After her flatmate takes her out to try a kebab, curiosity morphs into obsession, an animal-like craving for protein. Before you know it, she is having her first taste of human flesh and you’re faced with a cannibal on a twisted, terrifying journey of self-discovery.
It may sound crazy, but believe me, behind this sensationalist-sounding premise is a refined film. At its center are themes of transgression and desire. It shows a young woman struggling to build an identity, and the unbelievable strength required to overcome our instincts. All that with feminist undertones and a critical look at how group dynamics can turn us all into animals, treat others worse than animals. This is horror film-making at its best. It doesn’t rely on jump scares or dark rooms, although those do feature, but on a deep sense of unease rooted in fearful identification with Justine, the pretty, confused cannibal. The gore is never gratuitous, doesn’t feel over the top. It is simply necessary to tell the story.
The fateful moment when the taboo is first breached happens after Justine’s sister’s finger is cut off in a waxing-related accident (don’t ask). Alone with her passed out sister and a fresh finger in hand, she has a taste. A tentative lick. A nibble, then a bite. Then the whole thing, like you’d eat a chicken wing on your home from a night out. The great achievement of this scene, which I’m failing to make light of, is that it is impossible not to wonder what she feels as her initial hesitation gives way to a ravenous pleasure. Suddenly set to rising, fervent, quasi-religious music, her pleasure in the act is so convincing, so dramatic, that I was more captivated than sickened, unable to avert my eyes even if I had wished to, even as I knew that the image would leave a disturbing imprint on my mind. It was the first thing that flashed behind my eyelids the next morning as I lay in bed half-awake. I don’t think it’s going away.
The violence of this newfound pleasure is paralleled by her discovery of sexual desire, of her potential to attract. Because Justine is a virgin, her cannibalism and sexual awakening are intimately tied. They are both taboos each in their own way, for bringing bodies in close proximity, inside one another, in ways abhorrent to the good society. They are also both entirely foreign to her. Her first is her gay flatmate. I doubt I’ve ever seen such an intense sexual scene, so steeped in the potential for violence. Think of the ice pick in Basic Instinct, and replace it with teeth. The thing is, that level of passion is kind of sexy. As she climaxes, or perhaps to climax, she sinks her teeth into her own arm to taste blood. For an instant it seems as if her partner is the bite victim, and that moment is at the very heart of the tension animating the film, a question that must play around in the mind of every non-psychopathic cannibal: how can I get my next taste without hurting people, without hurting those I love? Because Justine has grown to like Adrien, and although she can barely control her desire for a taste, she can’t bear to hurt him. More worrying perhaps is the thought going through my head: how does that taste? As far as I remember, I sure haven’t relished anything that much.
All this is set in a context of social brutality – hazing in medical schools is notoriously humiliating and violent – which allows an interpretation of Justine’s violent outbursts as both an act of rebellion against the rituals imposed by the group, and a condemnation of them, as the signs of her cannibalism are but extreme versions of the death drive that leads a group of students to pour a bucket load of horse blood onto the incoming class in a twisted baptism. There is also a feminist current in Ducournau’s film-making, including via the aforementioned waxing-gone-awfully-wrong scene, the sisterhood of Justine and Alexia which overcomes all adversity, and provides a little comic relief.
Visually, Grave is appealing, cool even. Ducournau makes frequent use of close-ups and hand-held shots in the heaving crowds of the student parties, bringing you right there by all that tempting flesh, so close you can almost smell it, sense the hairs on the nape of a neck quiver under your breath, feel the stickiness of sweat on the dancing bodies. There are unexpected intercuts to symbolic images that take by surprise and bring a surrealist touch to a film that is otherwise realistic in its depiction of its subject.
Garance Marilier, an accomplished actress at 19 featuring her first full-length film, brings both vulnerability and a latent sense of threat to the role of Justine. When her face filled the screen, I could not avert my gaze, so fascinating and frightening was she. Her performance is complemented by a small, talented cast, and scored by an intense original soundtrack by Jim Williams, completed with tracks from The Do (Despair, Hangover & Ecstasy) and the rudest, most morbid rap song I’ve ever heard, where sex and death once again meet.
Grave is not a film for all. Rumour says a couple of spectators at the Toronto festival passed out from squeamishness and shock. Still, I already know this one will be way up there in my top 10 at the end of the year and I encourage anybody to see it if they think they can stomach it. The twist that closes the film, which I suppose I would have seen coming earlier if I wasn’t transfixed in the moment all along, did not disappoint. While it acknowledged the whole situation in its fucked-up craziness, it also managed to suggest that maybe it is and will be OK. Who wants to be a vegetarian anyway?