Paramedics being called to festival screenings of your movie because audience members fainted is probably the best bit of pre-release hype a horror movie can get, so I don't blame those at Focus World for wanting to hype up the gross factor in the French "I Was a Teenage Cannibal" horror movie one bit. The souvenir barf bags handed out at the screening I went to were a nice touch, and one that would make William Castle proud. But after seeing the film, I can only guess that those festival crowds were likely a bunch of lightweights, because I ate a sausage pizza while watching it, and I felt fine. (The bag came in handy for bringing home leftovers though!)
Raw centers on teenage Justine (Garance Marillier), who is entering veterinary school just as her parents did before her, and her older sister Alexia (Ella Rumpf), who has already established herself as the school's punky weirdo. Raised a strict vegetarian, Justine recoils at the thought of having to eat a bit of raw rabbit kidney as part of the extended and elaborate hazing rituals forced on first year students, but Alexia, who's given up the family's vegetarian ways, forces it into Justine's mouth. And whether she actually swallows it or not, that taste of meat begins to change her.
First the change is actually physical, as she develops a peeling rash all over her body. Soon after, cravings overtake her, and she starts stealing hamburger patties from the cafeteria, gleefully chomping on gyros, and sneaking her roommate's raw chicken out of the communal fridge, not bothering to cook the sucker up before diving in.
Her hunger begins to dominate her mind, and when a freak accident leads her to taste human blood and flesh, she wants nothing more.
Justine is just sixteen, a virgin to almost everything you'd expect from college life, so it's sometimes hard to tell if the nightmare that is this particular veterinary school is as bad as it seems, or it's just that we're seeing it through the eyes of someone who has been sheltered her whole life. (Also, raging parties in cramped rooms with loud EDM and sweaty dancing is kind of my idea of hell, so maybe I'm projecting a bit here.)
Director Julia Ducournau wants to paint Justine's lust for the flesh as a strong metaphor for blooming sexuality. Despite the fact that her roommate Adrien (Rabah Naït Oufella) is very, very gay, Justine can't help but fall for him, and when she watches him play a shirtless game of soccer on a rooftop, you can't really tell if she wants to have sex with him or take a big bite out of him. And that's kind of the point.
I say "kind of" because Ducournau doesn't fully succeed with the metaphor, and the film suffers a bit from poor story continuity and cohesiveness, problems that often befall first-time directors who are eager to get everything they want to say into their movie, even if the movie can't handle all the messages. In this movie's case, this includes commentary on misogyny, patriarchy, female rivalry, vegetarianism, homosexuality, and nature vs. nurture. To name a few.
As a horror flick, Raw is at its most effective when it centers on the common horrors of the body. A scene in the doctor's office, in which the skin is peeled away from Justine's rashes in gory close-up, is pretty gross, but the movie really hits a Cronenberg level of body horror when Alexia attempts to give Justine her first bikini wax. (I bet no small number of waxing appointments will get cancelled after this movie comes out.)
These moments, combined with Ducournau's beautiful use of color, an intense synth score (both totally worthy of Dario Argento at his most garish), and a genuinely clever ending, means Raw does live up to some of the hype — even if the smelling salts are purely optional.
Raw is currently playing at the Embarcadero Center Cinema.Raw