At a stop along the way to veterinarian school, Justine (Garance Marillier) finds a piece of meat in her vegetarian lunch. Her mother (Joana Preiss, "Ma Mère," "Dans Paris") creates a scene. But as she faces unrelenting hazing, her own sister, upperclassman Alexia (Ella Rumpf), insists she consume a raw rabbit kidney and Justine finds herself beginning to crave meat "Raw."
Alright, let's get this out of the way first. "Raw" is a very intense horror film, one which uses its setting to unsettling degree. This is not for the squeamish. But writer/director Julia Ducournau's eerily shot film (cinematography by Ruben Impens, "The Broken Circle Breakdown") is also highly charged erotica, its heroine's flirtation with cannibalism concurrent with her sexual awakening. I always say one has to wade through a lot of garbage to find a good horror film and this is one of them.
As is common in the genre, "Raw" opens with a prologue. On a long straight, tree-lined road, someone runs out into the path of a lone, oncoming car. The car crashes into a tree. But the victim stands up and approaches the driver's door. The ominous music (Jim Williams, "Kill List") tells us everything we need to know, at least until Ducournau returns to the scene of the crime.
Justine is disoriented at the school her entire family has attended. The hazing is brutal, performed by upperclassmen in white jumpsuits and black masks. After being forced down a trap door and crawling along with other freshman in a V formation underground, everything lightens up when the destination is revealed. This is where Justine first finds her sister, but Alexia leads her into a darkened path which opens to a room filled with animals preserved in jars. Alexia shows Justine what appear to be class photos, finding their parents. Ducournau keeps the pictures just out of our sight, showing just enough to build dread. (Justine's group photo follows soon thereafter, following a "Carrie"-like initiation rite that furthers her sense of isolation.)
Justine's really thrown off base over that rabbit kidney, especially when the formerly vegetarian Alexia rips into one. After she complies, though, she begins to change, tucking into a raw chicken breast that very night, out of sight of the one person she's bonded with, her gay roommate Adrien (Rabah Nait Oufella, "The Class," "Girlhood"). Adrien will note the changes in Justine, though, beginning with her casual gusto slicing a dog open during a dissection class. When she seduces him, things go to a whole new level, but Justine makes an important decision.
Setting her film in a veterinary school is a bit of sleight of hand, the horrific implications not born out yet disturbing nonetheless (besides that dissection class, we see a horse being prepped for surgery). What it does do is ramp up awareness of flesh and explain Justine's curiosity of anatomy. More disturbing is the implication of rape that is a constant at the school, from a bawdy school song to the nonchalant dismissal of a class argument Justine makes regarding monkey rape to an artsy twist on spin the bottle, giving the film an additional nasty edge.
Marillier conveys that unmoored feeling of being utterly alone in a new, threatening environment and she's uncanny in the big moment when her character crosses a line. Impens's work is another great asset here, suggesting the undead and the womb in his framing. One only wishes Ducournau's themes weren't so open to interpretation. While sexual awakening is clearly one of them, her final revelation, from Justine's father (Laurent Lucas, "With a Friend Like Harry," "Calvaire"), comes off as a prudish sick joke.
Robin gives "Raw" a C.
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