Chances are you've probably heard of Raw, even if you don't know the film by name. It's gained cultish film festival status after several instances of viewers passing out or puking at a screening. The notoriety of a film drawing this type of reaction from moviegoers should excite horror buffs, but to simply refer to Raw as a disgusting, gory film, worthy of such queasiness, is a disservice.
The feature film debut from French director Julia Ducournau, Raw is a clever, wholly creative coming-of-age story masked in cannibalism, more interested in exploring the disorienting sensation of young adulthood and an individual's sexual awakening. Though yes, you're going to see plenty of blood and guts throughout.
Raw follows Justine, a teenager who starts her first year at veterinary college. Her sister, Alexia, is already a student there, and it's something of a family craft. Both of their parents are vets and went to the school. The other trait the family shares is that they're all vegetarians, and they take it quite seriously, as evidenced by Justine's mother shouting at a restaurant worker when Justine discovers a piece of sausage in her mashed potatoes.
Much of the story, however, takes place in the dorms, classrooms and hallways of the vet school, where Justine and the fellow incoming freshmen are subject to an Animal House-level of hazing rituals for their "rush week." This includes being doused in animal blood, and, for the fateful moment for Justine, eating a raw rabbit kidney at the behest of her pressuring sister. That takes Justine on a riveting, oft-revolting journey toward cannibalism that's disconcerting from the onset. One minute, she's eating shawarma at a gas station deli, the next, she's covertly biting down on raw chicken meat in her dorm room fridge before, eventually, satisfying her craving with human flesh. Yum.
It's in these gory moments that Raw will grab the headlines, and for good reason: One scene, involving Justine, Alexia and a bikini wax, will be very hard to shake off, and is likely the source of Raw's notoriously nauseating reputation. Much of the credit for these disturbing moments should go to French actress Garance Marillier, who plays Justine. Marillier is, at times, a doe-eyed, introverted teenager who deserves the viewers' empathy for the abject hazing she's enduring. These feelings, however, are immediately undercut once Justine becomes more comfortable with her eating habits — if she's giving you a lustful gaze from across the room, that should terrify you.
Ultimately, however, Raw is more interested in exploring Justine's sexual awakening, which unsubtly goes hand-in-hand with her growing appetite. It leads to the loss of her virginity; one that has echoes of S&M, and that's where Ducournau makes her biggest point. Justine — and by extension, young women — should freely embrace her desires, be it sexual preferences or, in the case of Raw, a growing interest in actual human flesh.
What this does is achieve the seemingly impossible: Justine is perhaps cinema's most sympathetic cannibal. It's hard not to root for Justice once the — forgive me — meat of the narrative takes a few unexpected turns involving her and her sister, and how the rest of the school perceives her. A delightful third act twist will also satisfy those who are skeptical about the film's absurd escalation from raw rabbit kidney to cannibalism.
All of which puts Raw in such high esteem. As a horror film, it achieves what it sets out in spades. It's wrought with disgusting imagery and stomach-churning moments that are boosted by convincing practical effects. But as a coming-of-age film, Raw is a perverse delight that will permeate with the viewer, long after its goriest scenes eventually fade from memory.
Raw arrives to U.S. theaters March 10.