Director: Julia Ducournau
Stars: Garance Marillier, Ella Rumpf
4 (out of 5) Globes
You’ve never seen someone eat food with as much love as when the hero of “Raw” gnaws on her sister’s severed finger. This French/Belgian shocker arrives in America riding a wave of superlatives. It’s the feminist cannibal movie that caused viewers to run for the aisles at Cannes! But it’s also a movie one could easily pigeonhole. Perhaps it’s a letdown to learn it’s as much a character study and a coming-of-age saga as it is a gorefest. When young collegiate Justine (Garance Marillier) first chows on human flesh, it’s sensual and transcendent, not just bloody and disgusting.
Like any good midnight movie programmer, “Raw” knows to delay the goods, but usually with other goods. Arriving at the veterinary school that schooled her parents and currently her older, brusquer sister Alexia (Ella Rumpf), Justine — shy, curious, vegetarian — is thrust into a sadistically creative hazing week, where being doused in horse blood is only the beginning. It’s being forced to eat raw rabbit kidneys that pushes her over the edge. All of a sudden Justine, awakened to a whole new world, is stealing beef patties from the cafeteria, looking like a sweaty, crazy-eyed addict out for her next score. But it’s not till she accidentally slices off one of Alexia’s digits that she realizes mere animal meat won’t do.
As we said, this moment is something else. First she nibbles on it like a rabbit. Then she takes little bites. Then she grows more aggressive, confident, lustful. Filmmaker Julia Ducournau’s camera holds on Justine in medium shot, drinking in the act in all its messy implications and feelings. From here, “Raw” could have easily turned into a slasher; Justine has an entire campus of bodies at her disposal! Instead it offers less expected twists, staying driven by character more than by plot or the next nasty bit.
Those nasty bits are few and far between, and, infamy aside, nowhere as gruesome as other extreme Euro horrors like “Inside” or “High Tension.” It has more in common with another French puke-fest, Marina de Van’s “In My Skin,” in which a sickly woman learns to stop worrying and love peeling and sucking on her wounded flesh. Deep down is a story about a young woman discovering her body. We’ve heard that one before, but this isn’t a movie for horny men, and not only because its maker is female. (The few times Justine gets naked, it’s casual, messy, far from sexy.) Her body is not all she finds: In slavery to her disease Justine learns individuality, and at a time when she’s supposed to conform to the typically hedonistic freshman year experience.
Ducournau’s storytelling gets sloppy here and there, and its final twist is both an anticlimax and an only semi-amusing punchline. But she’s a natural with telling her tale in images more than words. It’s probably a joke that the talkiest scene — involving an empathetic, seen-it-all school doctor — has nothing to do with moving the story along. The savage sense of humor adds flavor, not just levity. “Raw” even boasts its own, far wilder version of “The 40 Year Old Virgin”’s waxing scene, plus an insta-classic fight that includes the taunt “You taste like s—.” (Imagine Bette Davis saying it to Joan Crawford.) Come for the flesh eating; stay for the empathetic portrayal of autonomy through transgression.