STEM has never looked more cutthroat than in writer-director Julia Ducournau’s debut feature, a French cannibalism horror set at a veterinary school. Indeed, Raw indirectly offers the best endorsement of studying the humanities in recent memory. Except it isn’t that focused on decrying the sciences, or on people literally eating people. Instead, this arresting and disturbing movie explores the more oblique problems consuming the young woman at its center.
Garance Marillier stars as Justine, a 16-year-old following in the footsteps of her vegetarian veterinarian family. She’s a first year at the vet school her older sister Alexia (Ella Rumpf) already attends, and where her parents graduated from. But Justine’s legacy life is far from glamorous. Upperclassmen quickly ensnare her in their hazing rituals. These “elders” (as they call themselves) dump a vat of animal blood over the starry-eyed younglings and kidnap them from their dorms to drag them to apartment discothèques.
The larger trouble begins when the elders force Justine to gulp down a raw rabbit kidney to complete her matriculation. She quickly develops bizarre symptoms, which include furious itching that leads her to scratch herself, well, raw. The doctor who prescribes a cream for her peeling skin asks her, “How do you see yourself?” in between pensive cigarette drags in the examination room. “Average,” Justine answers. Ducournau evidently agrees. The director clearly empathizes with her subject, whose arc reads far more like a coming-of-age tale than like a monster origin story. She’s an adolescent thrown into the turbulence of higher education. She’s lost in a familiar way, and that helps her stay affecting when things get grisly.
Raw refrains from wearing its metaphors on its bloody sleeve. Justine’s burgeoning sexuality is just as stigmatized as her growing appetite for human flesh, and Ducournau gets that across without being didactic. One scene late in the film cleverly balances both forms of the protagonist’s societally repressed lust. As she wraps herself around a partner, she struggles to resist exchanging his kisses with bites. It’s worth noting that a turning point in the plot (and one of the film’s most unnerving sequences) occurs as Alexia tries to force Justine to undergo an impromptu bikini wax.
Ducournau bites down hard on the bizarre back and forth between these two sisters. Theirs is the most compelling and troubling relationship in the movie. Alexia works earnestly (if impatiently) to indoctrinate Justine in college life, but she’s also suspicious and sometimes overtly antagonistic (the motivations behind her interactions with Adrien, Justine’s gay roommate and only friend, feel particularly dubious). That’s not an implausible personality for an older sibling, especially one who might be overshadowed by her successor (the film makes a point of acknowledging Justine is an unusually talented student). The writer-director uses their conflict to efficiently fuel much of the movie’s tension.
Despite the gratuitousness its main subject matter implies, Raw consistently hews to a subtler mood. Ducournau returns to quieter images like a wide shot down a long tree-lined country road, whose gloomy blues and greens gain frightening context when they reappear. The director and cinematographer Rupen Impens keep the visuals careful as the movie gets messier. When Justine ambles through a party, the camera stumbles after her as if itself soaked in booze and sweat. Sometimes bold red washes the entire frame, but Ducournau holds back on gore until she needs it.
Raw bows on a deeply unsettling note, although the narrative peaks at its midpoint and never quite matches the first real scare. Ducournau hesitates to show her hand, opting instead to drop hints whose sinister impacts become clear much later. Alexia’s devotion to her sister’s growth seems warped, and their parents almost always stay quiet whenever they could share insight on their alma mater. Something horrible is happening, but chunks of this brisk but meandrous movie could be jettisoned without losing its overall effect. Still, most of Raw resonates after ample time to chew.