If you intend to see the French teenage cannibal movie Raw, maybe don’t make dinner plans for immediately afterwards. Writer/director Julia Ducournau’s stunning debut is unsettling to say the least, and most viewers will have to—I can’t believe I’m doing this already—let this one digest.
When reading the phrase “French teenage cannibal movie,” it’s easy to assume you’re in for bloody, brutal, exploitation shenanigans. While there’s certainly blood and no shortage of holy-shit moments I watched with my mouth open, my stomach churning, and my heart beating in my throat, there’s so much more going on. Cannibalism is a vehicle to tell a story of bonding between two women, to show the tender horror of a shy young woman on her own for the first time, and of women taking control over who they are. Raw is sad and touching and way, way funnier than dramatic films about teenagers eating folks usually are.
Justine (Garance Marillier) comes from a family of vegetarian veterinarians. She’s sheltered and shy, but also something of a prodigy, and when she arrives at vet school, a whole new world opens up before her. Compelled to eat raw meat as part of a hazing ritual, it kicks off a burgeoning taste for flesh that escalates until, well, if you’ve read this far, I imagine you can guess where it leads.
Apparently vet school is way more out of control than I thought—maybe French vet school is the party place and I never knew. Campus is like a combination of twisted ritualistic military academy—the students are called conscripts, taught to blindly obey orders, and forced to participate in school traditions—crossed with a Lord of the Flies summer camp, as these seemingly unsupervised kids devolve into a chaos of sex, drugs, and animal care. Regardless, poor, sweet, innocent Justine is far out of her depth; wide-eyed and aghast. It doesn’t help that she’s an awkward weirdo who talks about monkey rape over lunch.
Ducournau captures Justine’s displacement with a keen eye. Nightmarishly gorgeous long shots follow her through the chaotic throng of booze-fueled dance parties where bodies press her into corners and she has no power or control, adrift on rugged, uncaring seas. Lush reds, cold blues, and a droning prog-rock score evoke Argento, Bava, and Fulci. But even moments where Justine is alone, in her own bed, under a sheet, are claustrophobic and distressing.
Like many movies with young adult protagonists, Raw is a story of self-discovery, though certainly one like we’ve rarely seen. The product of oppressive parents—ironic because they oppressively beat their progressive values into their kids—Justine has never made her own choices. She’s vegetarian because her parents force her, she goes to vet school because her parents did, and so on. Her journey to eating human flesh is an exertion of her will, her first; she consumes for once, instead of being consumed. After the first time she eats meat and develops a sadistic rash, her skin literally peels off, revealing something new beneath. It awakens deep desires of all kinds.
And Garance Marillier is just a monster talent, tracking Justine from mousey and timid to hungry in every way. The whole film hinges on her performance, and we watch her struggle with her developing hunger for flesh and a lurid eroticism, and the audience feels each beat and tug. She’s funny and uncomfortable and human, full of hope and despair and confusion and drive.
At the same time Raw walks harrowing horror story lines, there’s a delicate coming-of-age story. Free and unfettered for the first time, Justine finally discovers who she is. She bonds with her sister, Alex (Ella Rumpf), an older student at the vet college who’s already gone through this process, and who has her own secrets. It’s a moving, if dark, tale of female friendship and the warts-and-all bond between two women.
As serious as it is, a droll, grotesque sense of humor permeates Raw—sometimes it’s difficult to know whether to laugh or vomit. Ducournau peppers her film with almost surreal moments of twisted wit. From an old man with false teeth in a waiting room to Justine and Alex having a casual conversation while the elder sibling has her arm—to the shoulder—up a cow to a sisterly crotch waxing gone wrong.
Ducournau juxtaposes these moments of levity with startling brutality, deftly migrating from one to the other, delicately balancing tone as amusement turns to open-mouthed awe. The first time Justine eats human flesh, I went from laughing one second to watching breathless, eyes wide, leaning forward in my seat.
The construction—from visuals to sound to plot and pacing and tone—show the confidence and control normally attributed to a much more experienced filmmaker. Layered and symbolic, measured and wild, and provocative as hell, Raw is a remarkable movie in a vacuum; it’s a damn marvel considering it’s a debut. [Grade: A]