The coming-of-age stories of young women often involve blood and lust, but in French writer-director Julia Ducournau’s sickening debut Raw, these tropes take the form of cannibalism and blood lust. The eerie art house horror that had people passing out at TIFF has arrived. And while it is gag-inducing, it’s probably not what you’d expect. It’s better.
Angel-faced Garance Marillier stars as meek Justine, a soft-spoken vegetarian who goes through hell and a life-changing trauma during her first week at a prestigious veterinarian college. After she and her fellow freshmen are drenched in blood, Justine is pressured by her older sister/upper classman Alexia (a sultry and ever-smirking Ella Rumpf) to break her veggie-only diet in a hazing ritual where rookies must eat raw rabbit liver. Justine reluctantly agrees. Shortly thereafter, her body begins to change. She experience nausea, a ravenous rash, and a hunger unlike anything she’s ever felt before. Before long, surreptitious shawarma and stolen burgers aren’t enough to satiate her cravings. Justine goes cannibal.
Now, the red-band trailer may have you thinking Raw will be some garish gore flick, filled with Saw-like spectacles of outlandish and graphic violence. While there are stomach-churning scenes involving the peeling of heinous rashes, the gnawing of raw flesh, and the most harrowing hairball in horror, Ducournau’s brand of terror is rooted in character not carnage.
Marillier’s dark eyes suck us into Justine’s downward spiral with all the power of a black hole. We see not only the horror she inflicts, but also the shame and fear her transformation fills her with. Whether she’s nibbling a bit of found finger or literally running from her new normal, this in distress ingenue is mesmerizing. There are also moments of heady exhilaration in the mix, some from sex, but most from the swoon of fresh blood. And all the way, Marillier’s soft face—be it pale as a ghost or sullied with blood—pulls us toward empathy. We are not so much afraid of her, as we are afraid for her. She feels out of control of her body and her urges, and who among us cannot connect to that?
Methodically paced, Ducournau’s film reveals a confidence all the more impressive in a first-time filmmaker. And Raw’s surreal atmosphere smudged in grime, sprinkled with fur, splashed with paint, and splattered in viscera makes it throb like a nightmare that follows you into your morning. There’s a wildness here that’s fierce and thrilling, building to one shocking reveal after another. Then comes a final beat so sharply funny and fucked up that it left this critic cackling over the end credits. And that’s its menacing magic.
Biting and brilliant, Rawis a chilling tale with a wicked wit that’ll make dark hearts cackle.