An original French, coming-of-age, horror film! Even with vampire motifs and the ultimate cliche ” blame the mother” ending, this thirty-three-year-old director and screenwriter has pulled something off. Julia Ducournau directs and writes a short ninety-eight minute psycho-drama that will keep you interested even if you are not a horror genre fan.
Justine ( Garance Marillier) is sixteen and will be joining her sister, Alexia, ( Ella Rumpf) to study large-animal, veterinarian medicine. Like their parents before them, they get caught up in the hazing culture of the school. But this is not laid out chronologically.
We begin with a startling scene. A tree-lined roadway with a small figure walking towards us. We see a car coming the opposite way. The figure is gone, but then suddenly and purposely, it jumps into the car’s path. The car swerves and hits a tree dead on. The figure gets up from the lane and opens the car door. What is this? Not at all what we expected. Thus begins the most bizarrely original film I have seen in a long time.
Horror films spend lots of time setting up normalcy. Buying into the “this-could-be-me” frame of mind is important to the experience. And what could be more traditional than parents delivering their daughter to college? We have the family dog, the bare feet resting on the car dash, the dad’s kiss and the teasing “brainiac” nomenclature.
On the road trip, three family members stop at a cafe to have lunch. They are vegetarians (sort of). The mother makes a scene of support when a piece of frankfurter is buried under her daughter’s mashed potatoes causing her to gag and spit the onerous particle onto her plate. The cafeteria ladler is subjected to a long lecture beginning with, ” What if she were allergic?”
Actors Joana Preiss and Laurent Lucas are perfect as the parents nonchalantly dropping their youngest in their alma mater’s parking lot with her red suitcase, the color of blood. Her sister, an upperclassman, will meet her and get her situated. What we have is a relaxed right of passage.
From here on out, nothing is relaxed. Justine is roused from her first dorm sleep by loud shouts, masked intruders, and a ski pole as tribal spear, thrust menacingly. Seventy-five to one-hundred newbies are herded onto elevators and stairways in their undies. Braless and shirtless, they are made to crawl on all fours. Justine meets Adrien ( Rabah Nait Oufella) as she is kicked forward. Lights flash in a disco-club atmosphere, and the girls are ordered to “slut it up”. A few comply. Justine finds her sister who is totally wasted, and we wonder why this ” Lord of the Flies” initiation is so prevalent in otherwise tony schools.
Still in thongs and undershirt, Justine is led by flashlight to the specimen lab. Alexia shows her things dangling in fluid. From pranks like mattresses being thrown on the lawn to gory slime thrown down on unsuspecting white lab coats, initiation week progresses. Our imaginations are stirred when we see horses hoisted into the air in medieval like contraptions, and Alexia with her arm up to her bicep inside a cow. Chants akin to ” the elders are the great ones” are replete with the ultimate challenge of swallowing a raw rabbit kidney.
All that follows with her used to-be-veggie sis, sets us up for savvy college putdowns that play on many levels. ” Did wolves raise you?” and “Who talks about fucking monkeys? ” are examples. Humor and horror intertwine.
One of the best scenes involves itching. In an excruciating under the sheets sequence, we see Justine hive covered and dreaming of horses on treadmills. All because she missed one question on her paper and pencil test and was poisoned by bunny parts. Teenaged angst and the wish to not stand out in the crowd presage forced diaper wearing and being set-up for stealing a meat patty by her roommate.
The ultimate build-up for crazy shocking involves sister Alex attempting to give a Brazilian wax to Justine. The camera work is amazingly fresh and when Justine lustily snaps at a raw chicken breast and later vomits hair balls from her pica problem, we don’t know whether to laugh or scream. If the viewer is surprised by Justine and Alexia’s enjoyment of flesh, the next scenes are grossly shocking. Cannibalism reigns in this family and strangers in hospital wards seem to know this. One old man removes his dentures and chomps his gums while his eyes glint at Justine. Little does he understand that this is not the worst she has seen.
Bulimia, sexual exploration, food fights and scatological games are all thrown in. Bodies painted yellow and bodies painted blue writhe to mix green on the color wheel. A lip is bitten off and a tooth swallowed. Sisterly betrayal, a roommate’s murder, and a mother directing her daughter ” to eat her veggies” leads us to an even more shocking surprise. When Dad tells Justine that she will find a solution, we know he has adjusted to the bad~the very bad. Family dynamics are documented as honestly in this film as in Arthur Miller’s ” Death of a Salesman”. Sorry Indy only kept it on the screen for two days.