In Raw, appetite and youth rule your life

The first year of college is the most exciting and terrifying time of your life, one that not everyone can handle. Some take the freedom as liberating, others take it as a new form of constraint, a slave to the newfound appetites and allowances.

Raw perhaps takes the new appetites to their extreme. In Julia Ducournau’s debut feature, the liberation of college is turned to body horror as new Veterinary student Justine (Garance Marillier) begins her first year at the school where her sister Alexia (Ella Rumpf) is an upperclassman. Justine’s family are vegetarians, which comes into conflict when the schoolwide hazing forces Justine to eat raw rabbit kidney. That first taste of meat begins to unlock some…darker impulses

For those of you who haven’t quite put it together, Raw is a film about cannibalism, as Justine’s desire for meat begins to unlock a desire for human flesh, sex, and all the impulses and appetites her demure demeanor appears to have previously shoved down.

“Sex is death, death is sex” is not a particularly new avenue for horror to go down, but through the eyes of Ducournau, this takes on a whole new significance and power. Undoubtedly, part of that is the particularly female perspective that Ducournau gives the story, an unlocking of feminine desire and the particular relationships between sisters.

It’s also how deeply rooted it roots its horror in the fears of the story, not necessarily through anything inherently visceral. It becomes visceral in the telling, not in jump scares or in gore for gore’s sake.

Side note, that’s not to say there’s no gore. On the contrary, this movie first became famous for inspiring barf-induced walkouts at the (apparently) weak-stomached Cannes audiences. While I can report that this movie does indeed have plenty of disgusting body horror (there’s a scene with a rash that I actually couldn’t look at head-on), it’s not overwhelming and everything is rooted in these specific fears, those specific freedoms and the fright of your appetites being unlocked and losing control of yourself. It becomes frightening because of what it represents.

But there’s also a strange beauty to the whole proceedings. Ducournau films the college as an isolated place, a dream world that isn’t auditoriums but raves and operating theaters. There’s dashes of Giallo, vibrant color accentuating the real world and nightmares that are bathed in red.

Ducournau has a steady confidence, holding every shot just long enough to wring the right reaction before snapping you to the next. This is a deliberately-paced film, letting the horror unfold just enough to wash over you, and going big in the moments that deserve it. A music sting during Justine’s first true act beyond the pale is brash in that Giallo way, yet never tips into camp. Ducournau swung big for her debut and it pays off in absolutely extraordinary ways.

Garance Marillier’s performance also does wonders here, a tightly controlled performance that manages to find shift entirely organically with the arc of the film. Her doe-eyed innocence becomes a predator’s gaze, her unsure walk becomes animalistic. There’s a scene where we see her lose her virginity (well after the first time she tastes human flesh) that’s absolutely stunning, indulging all her appetites in a way that’s savage and animalistic and completely and totally committed. Marillier is an exciting presence and I look forward to seeing what she does next.

At the core of Raw, it’s that this is a rare sort of film. A debut that doesn’t feel like a debut, a horror that seems to scare without even trying, a genre film that feels personal. Its fears and scares are specific, its gaze is decidedly female. It’s the sort of film you don’t see, and on that alone, it’s worth celebrating.

But it helps that it’s just so damned good. Ducournau has made a superbly confident piece of cinema, one stylish and tense and scary and darkly humorous. It’s relatable in ways that make you deeply uncomfortable, and that’s what horror can be at its best. Raw is simply exciting, a work that grips you to its end and leaves you hungry for more.

Grade: A