The first thing to know about Raw is that it’s not for the squeamish. Its early screenings have caused audience walkouts, vomiting, and even fainting in festivals from Gothenburg to Toronto. Even knowing that you’re about to see a difficult film is not enough preparation, so consider yourself warned. The story follows Justine (Garance Marillier), a young woman raised vegetarian, who begins her first year of veterinary school. This is the same school her parents went to and her older sister Alexia (Ella Rumpf) is a senior student there. During a hazing ritual in her first week, Justine is forced to eat a raw rabbit kidney. From there, her taste for meat grows and can only be satisfied by human flesh.
The body horror is disgusting. And by that I mean it is incredibly realistic. The film is filled with blood and lacerated flesh. The practical effects capture the repulsive sheen of blood coated surfaces. Justine’s mouth, dripping with the thick crimson fluid, is a disturbing sight to behold. The movie also features some vomit-inducing scenes involving human hair shot in extreme closeup to prevent the viewer from any chance of relief. The effects, and their staging, make viewing a harrowing experience.
Despite being her first theatrical feature, director Julia Ducournau is remarkably adept at tackling complex topics. She uses long takes during Justine’s first party experience to convey the mass hysteria of young people raging with drugs and alcohol. She is even able to examine the subtleties of sibling relationships within the context of Justine’s nascent cannibalism. When Justine is forced to betray her personal beliefs by eating meat, she takes out her anger on Alexia for not supporting her. The two argue, slam doors, and even fight, but their love for each other comes through when they are at their worst. As their primal appetites surface, they reach an understanding with each other. Ducournau is able to capture the clashes that underscore the love between siblings.
Marillier’s performance prevents the movie from devolving into schlock material. Her genuine confusion as she deals with the changes in and around her is in stark contrast to her peers. Even as her lips are stained red with blood, her face exudes innocence, not malice. Her bloodlust appears like an uncontrollable urge hard-wired into her. She tries to stop her habit from growing, but it is a part of her being. The compassion her acting elicits makes her a sympathetic character, even when her actions are aberrant.
Raw might be best described as a cannibal coming of age movie. As violent as Justine’s habits become, they are symptomatic of her sheltered life. She is shown as the well-behaved, hard-working child that hasn’t experienced the world. Whether it’s cannibalism, sexual awakening, or independence from her family, she hasn’t had the chance to define herself and the changes are just another part of her self-discovery. Ducournau grounds the explicit narrative and transgressive behavior with the symbolism of a young woman finding herself and directs the gore with unsettling skill.