It’s the cannibal movie that caused people to faint at a film festival – this is what people talk about when they talk about Raw, the extraordinary body-horror parable from French director Julia Ducournau. The incident, which happened at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival, might cause folks to view this as some sort of cinematic dare, a splatter shocker designed to test the limits of the scary-movie marine corps. Consider this a disclaimer, and a reclamation: The story of a young woman (Garance Marillier) who develops a taste for certain off-the-menu delicacies is indeed intense. It’s also after much bigger game than merely thrilling folks who’ve studied Fangoria photo spreads with Talmudic-scholar fervor. Smelling salts are not required, but the ability to recognize a near-perfect movie when you see it most certainly is. If Get Out reminds folks that you can smuggle intelligent social commentary and timely conversation-starters in to theaters via explosive genre packages, then Ducournau’s feature debut doubles down on the notion. In terms of the female-body politic, it’s an art-horror dirty bomb.
Flesh of any kind is initially carne non grata for Marillier’s Justine, a college student who comes from a long line of militant vegetarians; Mom freaks out when a morsel of beef makes its way into some mashed potatoes. But at the veterinary school where she’s enrolling as a freshman – and where her older sister, Alexia (Ella Rumpf), is a long-established alpha – the young woman discovers that no one cares about her culinary ideology. After a hazing ritual involving newbies being covered in animal blood (paging Carrie White), Justine is forced to eat a duck kidney. Instant nausea leads to a gnarly rash; soon, she’s going in to town and stress-gnoshing on kabobs with her gay roommate Adrien (Rabah Nait Oufella) at a Gas ‘n’ Sip. Then an accident causes her sister to lose a digit. While waiting for the paramedics, Justine impulsively explores the notion of literal finger food. And now the craving starts.
To say that things begin to take on an even stronger metaphorical resonance once our heroine indulges in her newfound gourmet obsession would be grossly understating the point; the fact that this coincides with Justine’s sexual awakening, made implicit via solo dress-up grinding in front of a mirror then explicit by her ecstatically biting her own arm during sex, isn’t coincidental. College is when you try on numerous identities and experiment with new ideas before your in-flux personality calcifies into an adult-shaped mold – so, the film suggests tongue-in-chomped-cheek, why wouldn’t anthropophagy be on the docket as well? (Nor is she potentially the only cannibal on campus.)
Ducournau has referred to her movie as a coming-of-age story, and you can see this waifish character go from awkwardly tottering in high heels (a shot that spells out the movie’s ideas on femininity drag; don’t even ask about the Brazilian waxing sequence) to aggressively asserting herself over 99 blood-flecked minutes. Girl, you’ll be a man-eating woman soon, and though references to bulimia and trichophagia suggest control issues run psychologically amuck, Justine also discovers a sense of empowerment in this taboo line-crossing. She begins to take ownership of her body by consuming others’.
None of which should suggest that Raw is simply a grad-school term paper smothered in gore. Ducournau knows how to make the vocabulary of horror filmmaking either finesse or bludgeon with a frightening degree of facility. Few movies have used pacing and composition to such an effective degree in the name of XX-centric dread (the film owes as much to Roman Polanski’s Repulsion as it does to the cinema of repulsion), or understood how to employ color so effectively – from a seven-minutes-in-heaven encounter involving blue and yellow paint to the crimson drop on a white lab coat that signals a Type-O deluge. There’s a hallucinogenic quality to the deadpan scenes of Justine coming to grips with this personal channeling of passion and perversity, and a shocking aspect to the carnage that feels invasive in a way most shock artists can’t conjure. You never get the sense that you’re not watching a master at work, regardless of how scant Ducournau’s filmography is. She is the real thing.
You could say the same for her partner-in-crime Marillier, who lets viewers join her heroine’s journey of carnal knowledge through carnivorous free-fall. A dead ringer for the fictional future offspring of Paul Dano and Saoirse Ronan, the 19-year-old actor can radiate innocence, depravity or bewilderment in a glance, and toggle between humiliated and animalistically hungry on a dime. It takes a certain type of performer to pull off the abandonment of embracing one’s dark side and barking like a dog when her sister forces her into a drunken canine act at a party, and Marillier instinctively knows where the do-not-cross line is – then fearlessly hops over it. Ducournau is the one who gives this cunning exploration of crossing the no-man’s-land between girlhood and womanhood its transgressive bite; her young star is the one who gives it a recognizable humanity amidst the amuse-bouche arterial spurt. They both allow the film to get under your skin in more ways than one. Your semiotic meal is served. Your appetite for smart, savvy, sick-as-fuck horror will be sated.