Raw: a Cannibal Horror Movie About What Women Like to Eat
Eat as much meat as you can before you settle down into a theater seat and watch Julia Ducournau’s feature-length directorial debut, Raw, because it’s a dish that may give you pause for some time to follow. The movie is more than a little pre-occupied with a a certain unorthodox delicacy — it is, after all, the coming-of-age story of a teenage cannibal. But even if it temporarily dampens your appetite, it’s well worth the sacrifice — Raw is a visual splendor, a spellbinding, symbolic romp that cleverly transcends its gory splatter while never taking itself too seriously.
The movie begins with pensive outsider Justine (played by excellent newcomer Garance Marillier), a lifelong vegetarian on the brink of self-discovery, joining her older sister at an unconventional veterinarian school in rural France. Justine’s education is intiated by a week of brutal hazing: her first night at school, she’s wakened by masked students in lab coats who round up the first year rookies, tossing their mattresses out the windows and corraling them into a frenetic, midnight party in the neon-drenched netherworld of the building’s basement.
If these initial undertakings are all too clearly reminiscent of cattle being led to slaughter — well, that’s kind of the point. After all, it’s one of these exercises in herd mentality that signals Justine’s undoing, when she’s goaded into swallowing a slice of raw rabbit kidney in order to fit in. Like Eve before her, it’s this single taste of forbidden fruit that triggers Justine’s descent into depravity. Not long after, her skin breaks out in an unsightly rash and she’s pilfering beef patties from the school cafeteria, binging on kebabs, and relishing midnight snacks of uncooked meat.
Despite being a dorm-style university, the school is conspicuously devoid of adult supervision — a sterilized, coldly-lit institution of the worst sort, where anxious horses line up for ketamine injections and lifeless dogs await dissection on cold gurneys in metallic operating rooms. It’s more like a William Golding-inspired island of higher education, in which fitting in is a price to be paid at the highest of costs.
Like other cannibal movies of its ilk, Ducournau’s depiction luxiartes in gore (and of course, we wouldn’t have it any other way), but the must disturbing moments are the ones that deal with subjects decidedly less taboo than that of gnawing on uncooked collegiate body tissue. The film’s most nauseating instances are the ones that deal with torments of a more domestic variety, like a scene in which the camera lavishes over a pubic hair waxing at interminable length, or the extended, excruciating shots of Justine’s fingernails scratching at her inflamed flesh — the dry sound of her fingers biting into skin like nails raking across a chalkboard.
The cannibalism in Raw largely takes place offscreen but this doesn’t make it any less disturbing. That’s because Ducournau has an eye for haunting imagery, interspersing the film with strange, evocative interludes, like shots of half-naked teen bodies moving zombie-like on all fours through an underground crawl space, or the image of a sheet gracefully slipping to the floor and revealing an animal corpse beneath, or the dreamlike depiction of a horse thudding on a treadmill in the semi-dark.
Raw is a tightly packed portmanteau that’s dense with a studied symbolism not typically present in your average teenage horror flick, but primarily, the film is concerned with all the the things that women like to eat. Sexual awakening is conflated with a corroding, uncontrollable desire for human flesh, bulimia is the female undergraduate’s disease de rigueur, and a public force-feeding is the gateway into a particular kind of hell.