A reserved veterinary student develops new cravings in her first year of college.
Directed by Julia Ducournau
Starring Garance Marillier and Ella Rumpf
Review by Jon Kissel
Shifting to incoming vet student Justine's (Garance Marillier) perspective, the film briefly becomes a study in hazing and initiation rituals. While French schools may not have Greek organizations, there is still plenty of abuse inflicted on the new entrants. Justine is rousted from her dorm in the middle of the night, alcohol is poured down her throat, and the formerly bookish and withdrawn girl is thrust into a bacchanalian rave. Her class, posing for a group picture, is doused with animal blood in an annual ritual, and each student lines up to choke down an obligatory piece of rabbit kidney. A strict vegetarian who has never tasted meat in her life, Justine resists, but her upperclassman sister Alexia (Ella Rumpf) forces her to eat it. That tiny piece of rabbit kidney thrusts Justine onto a horrifying descent into body horror, as first her own body rebels against animal flesh before craving it in whatever form is available.
The opening act of selfishness spreads its wings over all of Raw. What could be more selfish than cannibalism, in which the stuff of a person's body is turned into temporary sustenance for another? This heinous crime looms over the rest of the film as Justine's cravings take on the form of compulsion and addiction. Raw chicken breast out of the fridge transforms into... something else. Ducournau dangles the horrific stakes at every opportunity, mixing Justine's gustatory awakening with a sexual one. Is she staring at those shirtless boys playing sports because she's attracted to them, or is she hungry in a different way? The feeling of anarchy that reigns over the school, where outside of class, adults are completely absent, extends to any semblance of morality, with Justine enacting a Hobbesian state of nature if she can't keep her urges in check.
The stakes rest comfortably in that battle, where Justine has previously spent her entire intellectual life respecting animals of all kinds and is only now considering wholesale consumption. A lunchroom discussion finds her equating violence against humans with violence against any animal. In her mind, she may as well be going to med school, but why treat one species when one can treat many? Perhaps seeing all meat as meat, no matter its origin, provides Justine's rationale for cannibalism, but she's not surrendering willingly. David Cronenberg would surely admire this film, as Ducournau borrows his recurring theme of psychological torment manifesting on the body. After eating the kidney, her body and mind reject it with vomiting and a psychosomatic rash, revealed in gasp-inducing brilliance by Ducournau and cinematographer Ruben Impens. As the horror shifts from what the brain can inflict to what the body can inflict on other bodies, Raw get no less shocking in its violence and gore.
Despite its intensity, Raw is not simply an endurance test. It is that, and it provides the viewer with plenty of potential hard outs, but it's also pure cinema, a sensory experience that approaches the ecstatic. Impens does superlative work in constructing the look of the film, with eye-popping shot after eye-popping shot. The score, composed by Jim Williams, is more modern than simple horror strings, but it functions in the same way, elegantly ramping tension and punctuating reveals. Marillier and Rumpf are believable sisters while also being polar opposites, and both give toxically charismatic performances. Rumpf portrays Alexia as a person who attracts people to her like a bug zapper. Marillier's eyes convey the same quality even in her mousiest moments, like she's always had this quality and it's just now coming out with other, more undesirable traits. Without these and other strong components, Raw might become intolerable, but Ducournau's team is working in synch to produce the best possible product.
Raw reverberates with dark and hypnotic energy, begging to be rewatched and reindulged in spite of its Grand Guignol content. It draws viewers into itself as surely as Justine is drawn to her taboo instincts. The transgression of the aptly-titled Raw goes all the way back to the story of Eve biting the apple, an elemental wrong that feels so right. Raw luxuriates in the sheer power of film, where even the most unspeakable of desires are capable of being communicated in a sensuous and magnetic fashion. That kind of exhilaration, of finding a great film and surrendering to its magic, is why I love cinema. If a viewing of this sent me to the hospital, I would return to the theater with the medical bracelet still attached to my arm. A