I suppose it’s fair to say Raw is not for everyone. Turns out a lot of the general populace don’t like subtitled French movies. Much less ones where humans gleefully feast on each another’s flesh. But let me tell you, Raw is every bit the toothy show-stopper that I wanted it to be. And much funnier. A familial politics drama smuggled inside a coming-of-age cannibal story, the feature debut from writer/director Julia Docournau tells the story of vegetarian veterinary student turned budding people-eater Justine (Garance Marillier) and is served up with all the fixin’s. To say I loved it would be an understatement.
Raw starts in deliciously teasing fashion. A sickly amuse-bouche to prepare the palette. A long narrow road lined with hardwoods, a silver coupe races through the frame. A woman obscured by distance throws herself onto the road. The car swerves and collides into a tree with a breakneck crunch. The woman rises slowly. Malevolently. What looks like a pool of blood spools into a drape of dark hair. A calculated near-miss. The woman softly pads to the wreck. Jim Williams’ score trembles, crescendoes. Something most sinister is afoot. And then…
Dining with her parents, Justine is on her way to veterinary school but not before one last meat-free meal. As Justine forks her way through a pillowy pile of potatoes, a rogue meatball materializes. The nutritional enemy incarnate. She spits it out before having the chance to bite down upon the glistening globe of protein. Her mother chews out the chef. Not much later, Justine is swept up in an animalistic initiation ceremony where fresh-faces are doused with horse blood and forced to eat raw rabbit kidney. She tries to resist, pleading of her vegetarian roots, when elder sister Alexia (Ella Rumpf) arrives on the scene. Citing the need to fit into the flock, Alexia peer pressures her book-smart sister into swallowing her first mouthful of the animal kingdom. Within Justine, an indescribable and irresistible taste for flesh germinates. And grows.
From Cannibal Holocaust to Hannibal Lecter, cannibalism has a long standing tradition in cinema. After all, what greater taboo is there than eating your fellow man? The bipedal forbidden fruit. The horror genre revels in taboo. Rolls in it like pigs in shit. Eating people and horror go hand-in-hand like Mr. Robinson and cuckoldry. Though getting the recipe right is as delicate a process as matching detective brains with just the right chianti.
Cinema’s fascination with cannibalism has seen a resurgence of late with a series of acclaimed indies (We Are What We Are and its English-language remake of the same name), Eli Roth’s homage-filled but ultimately value-bereft The Green Inferno and even Mr. Lecter receiving a fantastically grotesque run on Fox, but none measure up to the narrative and comedic prowess presented in Raw. The balancing act is tricky – striking the right chord between gross-out and narrative ingenuity – and first timer Docournau handles it with the skill of a master, juggling the grim and grisly nature of Raw with some truly gut-wrenchingly funny impulses.
As Justine becomes hostage to a certifiable addiction (complete with a nightly case of the meat sweats), Docournau pairs her dietary impulses with an equally unsettling sexual awakening. Gay roommate Adrian (Rabah Nait Oufella) finds himself on the unfortunate receiving end of Justine’s impulses and as her appetite (sexual and otherwise) grows, he realizes that in trying to help her “find herself”, he may have bitten off more than he could chew.
Dogged by a community that fails to accept dissension and caps alternative opinion, Justine struggles under the pressures of freshman hazing, further complicated by her sister’s uneven role in her life. Docournau finds dramatic tension in the relationship shared between Justine and Alexia, whose sibling rivalry extends far beyond the auspices of normality. Their bond at first is squishy and archetypal, kid sister and older, edgier first born. As Alexia pushes her sibling’s blossoming femininity with slutty dress and bikini wax how-to’s, their relationship blooms into ominous territory full of unexpected twists and turns. When the two share the scene, Raw gets raw, delivering visceral gag-worthy moments many will surely watch between split fingers. Alexia does her sisterly duties, showing Justine the ropes and attempting to develop a kind of Dexter-approved apprenticeship, but family is hard and things crumble into a disturbing game of bobbing for bodies and a bite-fight for the ages.
At its heinous core, Raw is a gut-busting parable about family and self-discovery and the bloodstained ties that bind the two. The pain, and ultimately the shame, of one’s heritage is reflected by Justine’s feral urges, as she pulls tuffs of hair from her throat like a magician’s kerchief from his sleeve or coyly nibbles on an accidentally severed finger. Guilt wracks Justine. Early in her carnivorous career, she lifts a cafeteria burger. When she’s caught, she tosses it in with the rubbish. That night, she and Adrian take a bus far from campus so she can chomp down her first shwarma. I would be hard pressed to think of an actress who conveys as much simply by chewing as Marillier does when she takes on that shawarma. Her’s is a delicious performance that, like a simmering stew, only gets more full-bodied with time.
Justine’s dining experiences, particularly her more unsavory ones, are often followed by attempts to regurgitate – a manifestation of her guilt eating away at her from inside. It’s easy to relate. Imagine if every time you had the munchies, you woke to a blood-streaked face, streak body parts who knows where. But not even the two finger trick is enough to summon her stomach’s tasty contents. It’s as if her body is unwilling to surrender the meaty goods. And this is where we find Justine: caught in the dreadful position of realizing her inner most desires are not and will not be accepted by any civilized society.
Which begs the question: What’s worse? Living life in hiding, an insatiable bottomless pit, or leaning into your sin full brunt but ultimately remaining true to yourself? I’m not sure Raw wants to prescribe an answer one way or another but with a masterful closing shot that draws extended laughs as well as perfectly contextualizes each and every thing we’ve seen on the screen, questions of Raw’s staying power will linger long after, stuck in your teeth like a good chunk of grizzle.
CONCLUSION: Make no mistake, ‘Raw’ will prove difficult to swallow for most, what with its unblinking depiction of human-on-human consumption, but those with a stomach of steel will be treated to a shockingly delicious slice of cannibal-horror fare. When dissected, ‘Raw’ has a belly full of uproarious dark humor, and is as dramatically engaging as it is full of surprising thematic depth; a bloody, uncompromising treat for horror fans that is sure to be amongst the best crops of the year.