Need an Appetite Adjustment? Get ‘Raw,’ a Cunning Campus Cannibal Creep-Show

Garance Marillier as Justine. Focus Features

I have a fright rating for horror movies. Does the movie make me jump and squirm? Cover my eyes with a sweater and then look through the knit-bits? Do I grab the arm of the friend or stranger beside me, gradually crawling inappropriately into their lap? Well, Raw made me physically retch, and stand up, turn around, and retch some more. Score!

RAW ★★★★
(4/4 stars)

Written and directed by: Julia Ducournau
Starring: Garance Marillier, Ella Rumpf, Rabah Nait Oufella
Running time: 99 mins.

Parisian Julia Ducournau’s first feature, which won the prestigious Fipresci Prize at Cannes Critic Week last year, follows smarty-pants Justine (Garance Marillier). The shy 16-year-old vegetarian enters the family alma mater, a remote cinder-block veterinary college. She reunites with her extroverted sister Alexia (Ella Rumpf) – and undergoes a full-out freshman hazing at the hands of her “elders.” This includes eating RAW rabbit kidney. Let the gagging begin – Justine’s and mine.

The next day, Justine awakens, madly itching. Her disgusting rash is only an externalization of the condition that is about to consume her – or, well, find her consuming something more than root veggies and mash in the college cafeteria. Accompanied by her hunky gay roommate, Adrien (Rabah Nait Oufella), she steals a burger and then gorges on shawarma. She graduates to raw chicken filets and tries to medicate her condition with booze in a way that only heightens her cravings. In a set-piece that may be termed cinema’s first homemade Brazilian wax job gone horribly awry, the reticent Brainiac discovers that she has a taste for the long pig – human flesh.

Ducournau’s good girl coming of rage story succeeds because it is a raw portrait of a complicated, contradictory fully-realized contemporary young woman. Wide-eyed Justine loves animals, loathes meat and undergoes a transformation that both disgusts and awakens her. Who she thinks she is sitting in the backseat of her parents’ car on the way to school and who she swiftly becomes is simultaneous horrifying because it involves the ultimate taboo, and relatable because she is a naïve freshman discovering her true self beyond the hover of her helicopter mother. Leaving home for college is a turbulent time of freedom and foreboding – and as challenging as this can be, imagine if what you discovered about your studious vegetarian virgin self is that you crave human flesh and it turns you on?

Supported by a terrific Jim Williams score, the muscular director sets the gore against a banal landscape so that the horror pops. And there is something peripherally exotic – and thematically on point – as the newbies experiment on large lab animals at their human disposal as teaching tools. A scene where a horse is doped up, muzzled and intubated is grotesquely fascinating by itself. And, then, in a cheeky cinematic reference, Justine dreams of that same beast, trussed up on a treadmill, galloping, in homage to Eadweard Muybridge’s seminal early motion study. It’s a cheeky wink of directorial self-awareness that doesn’t stall the narrative fluidity.

Thickening the plot is the knotty emotional triangle of two sisters competing for their mother’s love. Outside the ER one night, Justine’s father confides to his youngest over a shared cigarette about the challenge of parenting two daughters. The push-me-pull-you of their relationship, the mama’s pet Justine versus the knowing wild child Alexia (at times intimate and protective, at others nearly homicidal) ups the tension like amphetamines.

Raw pushes a lot of subconscious buttons, recalling early, gooey Cronenberg low-budget shockers. With Rabid and The Brood, I cut my teeth on horror, a genre I couldn’t stomach early in my career. I first learned how to sit still for scary movies by pausing the videotape when I got too frightened. I’d run from the living room, and then inevitably return because, the tension ratcheted, I had to know what happened next.

For those with eating disorders, there may be a heightened sensitivity to Raw. And, for me personally, I could relate to being a studious over-sensitive outsider with a fraught relationship to my cool, popular older sister. Adding another layer to the unease, my baby daughter is heading off to college this fall, starving for the liberation from parental controls that excites her — and terrifies me. I have no concern, however, that she will become a cannibal but the film uses that metaphor to crawl under the rashy skin of the freshman experience in a way that slick college brochures camouflage.

As Justine, Marillier finds herself freed from the-hero’s-girlfriend acting exile. Since her character is quiet by nature, the stunning actress works her brown eyes in the white-mask Isabelle Huppert style. Marillier’s initially stiff and awkward body, compressed inward when she arrives on campus, unfolds and gradually begins to groove. Her hips shimmy. Often, the contrast between the repulsion in her captive eyes and the ravenous actions of her bloody maw embody the movie’s split between the rational and the animal. Perhaps, if you really want to become a veterinarian and understand carnivorous animals’ true nature, being a cautious vegetarian is the pussy’s way out.

More lioness than pussy, Raw Director Ducournau really cooks. Need an Appetite Adjustment? Get ‘Raw,’ a Cunning Campus Cannibal Creep-Show