Directed by Julia Ducournau
Opens March 10
A credible candidate for the midnight-movie canon, the French film Raw, the stylish feature debut by 33-year-old writer-director Julia Ducournau, makes liberal use of Grand Guignol gore to tell a relatively modest (if twisted) story of female adolescence. The film, which opens with a mysterious car crash, soon retreats to the more mundane horror of finding something in your food: The 16-year-old Justine (Garance Marillier) sits down with her parents at a roadside cafeteria, digging into a plate of mashed potatoes—only to uncover a stray piece of meat buried within the heap. The studious and self-serious Justine is, like the rest of her family, a vegetarian. But that lurking scrap foreshadows the illicit cravings she discovers as a student at veterinarian school, where her parents leave her under the reckless supervision of her older sister, Alexia (Ella Rumpf).
When Justine finally does have her first taste of animal flesh—a rabbit kidney proffered during a freshman initiation rite, and ingested only after a significant amount of peer pressure—her reflexive retching suggests an existential emergency, a fear of bodily contamination rather than simple distaste. In this sense, Raw calls to mind The Vegetarian, the 2007 novel by Korean writer Han Kang that was published last year in the US to great acclaim, in which the anguished protagonist resorts to slashing her own wrists after she’s brutally force-fed a morsel of pork by her father, her first taste of meat since declaring her abstention from it at the beginning of the book. But the kissing-cousin narratives The Vegetarian and Raw, both of which revolve around extraordinarily pathological dietary habits, wind up diverging in tone and theme: Whereas Kang gives the literature of refusal, a no-man’s-land populated by such obscure ascetics as Melville’s Bartleby and Kafka’s hunger artist, a ferocious feminist inflection, Ducournau chooses to play around knowingly with more conventional forms, translating the coming-of-age film into the arch vernacular of art-house body horror.
After breaking out in what looks like third-degree eczema—at the school infirmary, a doctor gingerly lifts several scaly patches from her abdomen with a pair of tweezers—Justine finds that, far from banishing her appetite, that rabbit kidney has awakened an insatiable hunger, one that gradually seems to take over her body as well as her mind. In short order she’s ravenously eating the raw chicken breasts that her roommate, Adrien (Rabah Nait Oufella), has stored in their dorm mini-fridge, and from there she soon graduates to human flesh, gnawing exploratorily on her sister’s freshly severed finger, which gets accidentally lopped off during a failed Brazilian-wax experiment. As it moves along, Raw gradually gathers into a veritable fury of bloodshed and sexual abandon, as Justine loses her virginity to the gay Adrien, Alexia offers her own lessons on the cannibalistic practices that turn out to be a family inheritance, and all the while the film earns extra credit for its packed-party choreography.
Ducournau, whose movie boasts a louche, harpsichord-based score by Jim Williams, certainly doesn’t hold back when it comes to associating carnal appetites with carnivorous ones. Indeed, bloodlust mingles with actual lust in several clever moments: In one slow-motion interlude, Justine, preparing for a night out, dances suggestively in front of her mirror and in short order begins to kiss its cold surface, the smeared red lipstick around her mouth all of a sudden resembling the bloody oral aftermath of a cannibal feeding frenzy; at another point, Justine tosses and turns in bed, evidently trying to fight off her basest urges, the camera taking up a suffocatingly close perspective from under the sheets. Yet despite its striking visuals, and admirably live-wire performances from Marillier and Rumpf, it is in the evocation of its setting that Raw ultimately feels most original. Part taxidermy parlor, part juvenile reformatory, and part frat house, the vet school is less a place of learning than a cinder-blocked staging ground for highly formalized hazing and unbridled debauchery. After all, as Raw reminds us, there’s no menagerie more savage than an institution full of human adolescents.