If horror movies have long taught us there is no greater monster than adolescent female sexuality, Raw offers a twist for the ages. In Julia Ducournau’s breathtakingly depraved new movie, all it takes is one taste for Justine (Garance Marillier), a young veterinary student, to lose herself to a lust she’ll never overcome. Her desire, as it happens, is for meat—at least at first. A virginal vegetarian, our heroine washes down a rabbit kidney with a shot during a hazing ritual at her new school, and the raw flesh sends her on an innards-lined odyssey of carnivorous discovery, beginning with standard fare (raw chicken) and working up to finer delicacies (severed finger, for one). As her journey progresses, it isn’t clear whether Justine is sizing up the boys in her class for sex or for dinner, but the movie soon suggests an answer: Why not both?
By now you probably have a sense of whether this movie is for you, but let it be known that Raw is the French cannibal sex movie to end all French cannibal sex movies, a truly fearless descent into total degradation. I recommend it highly. At festival screenings, some viewers reportedly fainted; for my part, I could only laugh at every new indignity, each more ingenious and warped than the last.
Even so, the most delicious part of Raw is its rich metaphorical life. Rather than playing like a gross-out sideshow, the movie has viscera-streaked things to say about the terrors of young womanhood, sisterly initiation, French racism, the gruesome traditions of veterinary science, and the uneasy bond between women and gay men. It is a worthy heir to the fine tradition of horror movies as vegetarian propaganda. And nothing in it is quite as gutting as its savage wit, a sense of humor so dry you could salt it, bag it, and chew on it like jerky.
For all this we must thank writer-director Ducournau, a sicko for our time. She makes her feature debut(!) with Raw, based on her 2011 short Junior. Her formal assurance is clear from the film’s elliptical opening scene, a wide-shot stunner set on a twilit desolate road, where a faraway figure sabotages a car and then pops her head into the window to check on her breakfast. Soon we follow Justine as she travels with her doting parents to the veterinary school her older sister (a glorious Ella Rumpf) already attends. Her new classmates, she soon learns, are tribal creatures who specialize in the ritual abuse of new students. (At one point, a yellow-painted boy and blue-painted girl are thrown in a room and told, “Don’t come out until you’re green.”) Book smart but easily scandalized, Justine does not thrive on her classmates’ often-bloody hedonism, until she enjoys her first internal organ, at which point she starts to enjoy it a little too much.
From there, Ducournau escalates Justine’s crimes against others and herself, never more effectively than in a show-stopping sequence that involves amateur body-waxing, scissors, and a master class in getting all the meat off the bone. The body-horror elements are abundant and filmed in loving detail, as Ducournau more than earns the requisite David Cronenberg comparisons. But as Justine loses herself in her hunger, the uncanny energy of adolescent desire becomes the movie’s true driving force. Raw summons its audience’s long-buried emotions and fears so vividly that it might prompt you to remember that one time you, too, began gnawing on an early romantic partner.
There is much more to unpack, but Raw is never particularly coy about its metaphors, whether they involve the ravages of the pubescent body or the relative merits of killing animals for food. In that figurative realm, there are also some unfortunate notes, as in the treatment of Justine’s roommate Adrien (Rabah Nait Oufella), a young gay Muslim quite enjoying his newfound freedom at school. Ducournau is careful to use very specific cultural markers to tease out a lingering underbelly of Islamophobia or homophobia in the student body, but by the end, the character morphs into a crude plot vessel for Justine’s transformation. There are signals this is meant to mimic the sexual exploitation of young women (“Why didn’t you fight back?” one character demands), but the movie also leaves the sense that he is particularly expendable.
Yet there is also a good argument to make that Raw spares no one, least of all the viewer, and the film’s most bracing quality may be how much Ducournau trusts us to roll with her every deranged whim. Be brave and see it with an audience to revel in the full cycle of disgust, and joy, and joyous disgust. Every eyeball lick and bisected farm animal is a gift, and Raw is nothing less than the birth of a grindhouse star.