Raw, the French college-cannibal horror flick from debut writer-director Julia Ducournau, has accrued a notorious reputation on the Euro festival circuit. Tales of nauseous viewers abandoning theaters, and critics vomiting and fainting as they sprinted to the exits at Cannes, have co-opted reports of the film itself. They've created a sadistic meta appeal, one that makes conversations about the movie less about its actual content and more about viewers' ability to withstand.
While some remarks about the graphic nature of two or three gruesome scenes in particular are not without merit, they are perhaps overblown. And they obscure the fact that the movie is very, very good — bloody and at times hellaciously unpleasant, but also bold and probing and fearlessly weird. It marks Ducournau instantly as an assured and adventurous voice in a French milieu that has already been known to push boundaries in the horror genre.
Raw begins as your standard tale of an innocent teenager — virginal, vegetarian, fastidious in her schoolwork — overwhelmed by a new environment. Namely: college. But in Raw, Justine (Garance Marillier) has not enrolled at your familiar leafy liberal arts university. No no. This is a brutalist industrial veterinary school, unlike anything you've ever seen. The aura is of an institution prepping its cohort for the slaughterhouse, not for suburban clinics that cater to gerbils and terriers. In an early moment that helps establish the atmosphere, a team of students sedates a horse. (This is probably a perfectly routine procedure, but given the nature of the film, it's somehow horrifying to watch). The school might be the perfect setting for a torture-porno in Eli Roth's wheelhouse, but Ducournau's interests are far more literate.
In addition to the stark, authoritarian physical vibe, the student body has a proto-fascist bent. The upperclassmen welcome new students in a series of repellant hazing rituals. First, the rookies' belongings are pitched from the windows of their tenement dorm rooms; later, they are splashed with animal blood; in an initiation procedure, Justine is forced to eat a raw rabbit kidney. (With all this awful treatment, the biggest question that emerges is why on earth anyone would stay at this place. It beggars belief that Justine's parents are both alums).
As a lifelong vegetarian, Justine suffers a violent reaction to her forced consumption of the kidney. After a nasty rash, she develops an inexplicable hunger for raw meat, which leads (as you may well predict) to the hunger for human flesh. No use denying that the premise is preposterous on the grounds of realism. But as metaphor or allegory, it's superb. Justine's latent cannibalism is presented as merely one on a roster of new and dangerous appetites — from typical college partying, to atypical veterinary partying, to the physical yearning she develops for her gay roommate Adrien (Rabah Nait Oufella).
Justine's sister Alexia (Ella Rumpf) is also enrolled at the school and is, we learn, uniquely qualified to help Justine integrate her new appetites into a functional life. But Justine is disgusted with herself: Ducournou's savvy commentary on young women and their often tumultuous relationship with self is as raw as the meat Justine consumes. But in the sisters' relationship too — in fact, perhaps most of all — Raw is unexpectedly lovely. After a bad and very messy decision, Alexia is distraught. Justine helps wash her big sister in the shower, and one recognizes the way these sisters (despite earlier brawls) know each other best, and take care of each other as no one else can. You might think for a moment that they're merely recovering from a night of heavy drinking ...