There’s a moment in Raw, the fiercely confident debut from French helmer Julia Ducournau, that makes the stomach turn with such finely tuned revulsion it’s no wonder multiple patrons fled for the aisles with the gurgles mid-movie this week in Toronto. After introducing us to her young protagonist Justine (Garance Marillier), a wide-eyed vegetarian virgin whose hunger for flesh has just been awoken in her first year of veterinary school, we feel the silent pull within her for just a taste, then a nibble, of the most forbidden of foodstuffs. Within seconds she’s devouring her first morsel of finger-lickin’ human like it’s a chicken wing. The nausea we feel? It’s the repulsion of recognition.
Raw (French title: Grave) took home the FIPRESCI prize at Cannes where the gory French-Belgian picture world premiered in May, but it scored even higher compliments at the Toronto Film Festival: It made audience members faint from shock, or at least that’s how its legend will go down in the annals of horror cinema. I’ve heard the patrons felled by Raw’s more outré scenes, in a film filled with gaping flesh wounds and at least one sensual eyeball-licking, were men, which only underscores the film’s power as a feminist fable: Women can withstand a great deal when it comes to real-life body horrors, all the more reason to teach new generations to embrace their cravings and desires before the self-suppression becomes the horror in itself.
Unfortunately, that’s a lesson Justine has to learn the hard way. We meet her rejecting a mouthful of mashed potatoes, finding an errant and offensive piece of sausage mixed into her plate. Her parents, both veterinarians and vegetarians, have raised her to just say no to meat. The timid but bookish teen has a bleeding heart for animals, too, so it makes sense that she’d follow in the footsteps of her family and head for vet school, where her older sister Alexia (Ella Rumpf) is already studying.
At 16, the timid Justine is a church mouse in a den of predators entering her first week of veterinary college. Stuck with a hot gay roommate named Adrien (Rabah Nait Oufella) as sexually frank as she is naïve, she wanders into a series of college hazing rituals like a deer in headlights—corralled in her underwear with her fellow coeds like cattle, doused in animal blood, humiliated in the hallways by senior students, Justine gets no help from her older sister Alexia, a cool girl living her own outsized party life.
But everything changes the day Justine is peer pressured into eating a raw rabbit’s kidney, despite her protestations of vegetarianism. The ramifications are physical, not philosophical, starting with deftly conceived, small-scale Cronenbergian horrors that start to manifest in her body. Even here, the realistic gore effects make you wince like a paper cut: When a campus doctor determines it must have been something Justine ate, Ducournau teases her audience by peeling patches of her heroine’s flaky epidermis off, like a snake shedding its skin.
Ducournau’s stylistic flourishes reflect Justine’s animalistic transformation even before Justine catches on to what’s happening to her. At first she tries to fight the hunger, confused and repulsed by her own impulses. Matter-of-fact flashes of life around the vet school become increasingly invasive, reflecting her internal transformation. We glimpse a horse on a treadmill, rodents floating in formaldehyde in jars, and Alexia in class, elbow deep in a cow’s rectum. Soon Justine’s coldly slicing open a dog cadaver, spilling its guts as Adrien gapes on at the unrecognizable creature before him.
Set in the hallways, dorm rooms, and wide quads of an almost dystopian cemented campus, Raw makes the most of its college setting. As the first drops of liberation dance upon Justine’s tongue, she experiments as college freshmen are wont to do with drinking, partying, and sex. The problem is she has no idea how to manage her esoteric new tastes. Like many a freshman on their own for the first time, she takes overzealous bites where she can, overcompensating for years of inhibition with increasingly dangerous results and tanking her social life and studies in the process.
Justine’s dark evolution is played astonishingly well by Marillier, who sells Justine’s awakening with such beautifully naked naiveté we feel every desire, thirst, and emotion. She has the look of a French Saoirse Ronan and the capability to play Justine’s bewildered panic with the sparest of glimpses. As Justine’s hunger escalates beyond her own comprehension, Marillier plays it with the quiet shame of an addict: First, a hamburger patty. Then a nighttime bite of raw chicken. Soon the boys in class are starting to look a new kind of tasty. By the time Justine realizes what it is she craves Marillier transforms herself with a feral power that emanates in her physicality and her eyes, a predator hiding in a young girl’s body.
Oufella (recently seen, appropriately enough, in Girlhood) makes a strong impact as Adrien, the roommate whose own sexual awakening allows him to see Justine’s struggle but whose compassion comes back to bite him. Through his friendship Justine gets to explore her truest self, and the payoff as she hungrily explodes in a bloody burst of S&M sex is dangerous, sexy, and almost cathartic. But it’s Justine’s relationship with Alexia, the only other person who sees her for who she is, that propels the film forward to its bloody conclusion. If Raw is a feminist sexual parable, the toxic rivalry between the sisters is just as pointed—if harder to untangle.
Ducournau acutely understands the dark dynamics of female and sibling rivalry—particularly between sisters so close in age—as well as the importance of women teaching each other not only how to survive in the world, but to process the disorienting emotions of entering young adulthood. Alexia begrudgingly teaches her square sis how to pee while standing and what to wear to look “slutty,” but she’s not interested in helping her sister figure out her own internal agonies. That failure leads to Raw’s centerpiece scene, one that begins with Alexia administering Justine’s first bikini wax and ends in a breathtaking escalation of absurdly wicked horror.
This cannibal coming-of-age drama is a helluva horror story that joins the ranks of the modern pop feminist nightmares that have come before: What Ginger Snaps did with lycanthropy and The Craft did with its witchy teens, Raw does for the cannibal subgenre by aligning Justine’s burgeoning appetite with her sexual awakening. Vegetarians may not care for its anti-veggie agenda—it’s really quite a pro-animal film, if you really think about it—but Ducournau risks offending them for the greater good: To encourage young women to embrace their natural desires, to tell them it’s okay to hunger for sinful delights (lest they be overtaken by them). Justine’s journey to becoming cinema’s most sympathetic cannibal coed is a delicious and maybe even necessary one… for those strong enough to stomach it.