“An animal that’s tasted human flesh isn’t safe.” This line of dialogue, spoken halfway through the film by a father who has yet to discover the dark secret that’s upended both his daughters’ lives, could also serve as the thesis statement for French filmmaker Julia Ducournau’s Raw. The film gained an unfortunate reputation as a gross-out cannibal shocker on the festival circuit, and while that categorization is not entirely, technically incorrect—this is a piece of body horror, and an intensely visceral one—it detracts from the striking imagery and layered symbolism of Ducournau’s uncommonly assured debut feature.
Another relative newcomer, Garance Marillier, stars as Justine, a first-year veterinary student who’s dropped off at college by her parents in the opening scenes of the film. Justine is a classic sheltered overachiever, a model student who’s never tasted flesh, either animal (she’s a lifelong vegetarian) or human (she’s also a virgin). Those two primal urges are thematically and visually intertwined throughout the film, beginning when Justine is peer-pressured into eating a bite of raw rabbit kidney as part of a hazing ritual. Over the course of the film, Marillier undergoes a remarkable physical transformation that reflects her character’s psychological turmoil, transforming from a demure (if more than a tad self-righteous) innocent to a feral, sex-crazed beast.
Complicating matters is Justine’s rebellious sister, Alexia (Ella Rumpf), a sophomore at the same school and a bit of a party girl. Alexia suffers from the same insatiable hunger as Justine, alternately teaching her how to cope with it and tormenting her with it in typical older-sister fashion. The volatile relationship between the siblings provides for some moments of pitch-black comedy—a scene where Alexia attempts to give Justine her first bikini wax provokes giggles and gasps in equal measure—as well as setting up the rivalry that will ultimately determine their fate. Stuck in the middle is Justine’s attractive gay roommate Adrien (Rabah Nait Oufella), who becomes a source of fascination for both Justine and Alexia.
Although the content of the film is undoubtedly horrific, Ducournau eschews jump scares and instead focuses on tone, never allowing the audience to fully relax by peppering even what appear to be quotidian transition scenes with little reminders of the macabre. No bus ride comes without a bloody car crash by the side of the road, no plate of mashed potatoes without an errant, forbidden meatball to ruin dinner. She doesn’t reject genre convention entirely, however: The film’s vividly saturated palette is drenched in bold accent colors in a way that recalls the Italian horror masters of the 1970s, as does the organ music that blares over the end credits. And it’s hard to see the image of teenagers drenched in buckets of blood without recalling another tale about a cursed young woman, Carrie.
That’s not to say that Raw is derivative. Ducournau’s vision is distinctive and refreshingly female in its gaze, embodying the contradictions of grotesque and beautiful, clinical and subjective, and composed and immediate all at once. The director juxtaposes the students’ young, frequently half-dressed bodies with those of animals both alive and dead; under her lens, flesh is just that: flesh. For Justine, the struggle is whether to succumb to the primitive urges that overtake her after that fateful first bite, or whether to follow her pre-existing moral code in the face of unholy temptation. It’s a struggle every human goes through at one point or another—just hopefully not to these extremes.