Film Review: Raw

Sisterhood and sibling rivalry are turned inside-out in the strange, startling 'Raw,' a full-on, visceral moviegoing experience.
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Perversely erotic and oftentimes flat-out gross, the French-Belgian shocker Raw is a pulse-pounder of a horror movie. Writer-director Julia Ducournau, making a stunning feature-film debut, delivers chills with uncommon sensitivity via bold and skillful storytelling that practically demands repeat viewing to catch nuances of a film that some viewers won’t be able to sit through once.

It’s all in the power of suggestion. A sexually blossoming young woman, alone under her bedsheets, or perhaps with a partner, turning over and over in violent passion—or is it horrendous pain? A body of students stripped to their underwear crawling en masse over concrete through a dormitory basement—or is it a catacomb? Are we back in Salò? Aided by sharp editing and cinematography, Ducournau wields keen instincts on what to hold back, and when and how to reveal a descriptive detail, or blunt-force scare, in what is, at heart, the coming-of-age tale of virginal vegetarian veterinary student Justine (Garance Marillier). Justine arrives at vet school, dropped off by her parents, to find the stark-looking campus mostly deserted, and her older sister, Alex (Ella Rumpf), an upperclassman at the college, apparently too busy to welcome her, or even to answer her calls.

Even worse for the already-homesick Justine is that the hazing of rookies among these future horse and dog docs is bloody brutal. (Who knew?) Within the first week, she and her hunky, gay dormmate, Adrien (Rabah Nait Oufella), are roused from their beds in the middle of the night, repeatedly have their rooms sacked, are forced to eat raw meat—a sickening experience for Justine—and doused in pigs’ blood. Unlike the gory deluge rained down on Stephen King’s Carrie White, Justine’s bloodbath comes more as class initiation than public humiliation, but it likewise portends the birth of a new woman. Ducournau takes great care to convey the mind-blowing rush of freedom that can overtake any sheltered middle-class kid fresh to a college campus, surrounded by their fellow free young bourgeoisie all eagerly shedding their parents’ control of their daily lives.

Raised by strict vegetarians, and still her mother’s dear “JuJu,” Justine initially is repulsed by the idea of eating animal flesh just to fulfill a school ritual, and she expects that big sister Alex will protect her. To JuJu’s surprise, it’s Alex who pressures her to get with the program, first compelling her to eat, then teaching her how to feed. The ensuing hunger unleashes heretofore unexplored, unexpressed desires, and Justine must figure out on her own how to stalk and conquer. More than just an archly feminist gore-fest, Raw is a consistently gorgeous film, and boasts superb performances by newcomer Marillier and Rumpf, as sisters who care for each other and compete with each other with equal ravenousness. As Adrien, the man who might come between them, Oufella projects an alluring masculinity that well serves his place in the story as object of desire, just one example of the film’s progressive approach to sexuality.

While thoroughly entertaining, the movie’s not exactly unpredictable in its gracefully slow build-up—through the body horror of trichophagia and the most harrowing Brazilian waxing session one ever is likely to see onscreen—to the ultimate gruesome transgression that is cannibalism. Following a deliberately paced first hour, the film feels as if it’s just hitting its freak-flag-flying stride when it makes a rather abrupt turn towards the finish line and a final unexpected twist. But at its peak, Raw does summon a spirit of savage abandon, vividly expressed in the climax of composer Jim Williams’ spine-tingling score, a wash of grinding guitars and grave harpsichords that, in the vein of famous themes from Halloween to The Exorcist, already sounds iconic.

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