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.
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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.