I don’t like cannibals, cannibalism, or, y’know, movies where people eat other people. So it’s the least surprising thing ever that I put off watching Julia Ducournau’s Raw, despite it having received nearly universal critical and acclaim, as well as being film written and directed by a woman and featuring two women in the lead roles. But I finally buckled down, bought some ill-advised chicken nachos, and put on the feminist French cannibal movie.
Raw begins with strict vegetarian Justine (Garance Marillier) arriving at veterinary school, where her sister Alexia (Ella Rumpf) is already in her second year. The pair share a loving and often antagonistic relationship, made worse when Justine is forced to undergo hazing as a part of her initiation into school. Being tossed out of bed in the middle night or forced to go to parties is one thing, but Justine resists being doused in animal blood and then made to eat a rabbit kidney. Not wanting to embarrass her sister, she finally does it, but awakes a few mornings later covered in a raw rash. What follows is Justine’s slow awakening to her lust for flesh, as she consumes first raw chicken and then begins to crave, um, redder meat. When she accidentally cuts her sister’s finger off during an attempted bikini wax (yes, really), Justine cannot resist consuming Alexia’s severed digit.
Raw is about more than just a girl becoming a cannibal; it’s a lyrical, heavily symbolic story about desire in its darkest and sometimes cruelest forms. The veterinary school is a winding series of concrete buildings and empty parking lots, the hazing rituals come off as cultish initiations in a post-apocalyptic world, and the scenes of animal dissection and medical care give the movie a zombie-esque feeling. Raw borrows some of its aesthetic from George Romero’s films, putting a bit of a nastily humorous twist on them. The sisters’ relationship is the driving force, their bouts of near-violent antagonism mixed with their evident love for one another adds another complication on top of the notion of people literally consuming one another.
Sex is the other form of flesh that comes into Raw‘s narrative. Justine begins a strange relationship with her gay roommate Adrien (Rabah Naït Oufella), whom she watches playing soccer with undoubted hunger – sexual and gastrointestinal – in her eyes. Those layers of passion and need, of sexual appetite mixing with physical appetite mixing with the need to fit in mixing with the complications of familial love, fall one on top of the other, creating a confusion of want and necessity. Raw treats it all with dark absurdist humor and an unflinching look at its own horror. As Justine looks to consume others, she’s also trying to avoid being consumed by her own needs and the needs of the people around her.
Raw is such a sharp, intense horror film that it really should be seen even by those, like myself, who don’t like cannibalism. Bloody? Yes. Messy? Undoubtedly. I mean, it’s college.