After an award-winning premiere at Cannes, writer/director Julia Ducournau’s debut feature ‘Raw’ apparently made a few audience members faint at the TIFF Midnight Madness screening. (At least, that’s the legend some whip-smart publicist spread to the world.) The movie is worthy of both reactions, however overstated they may be.
Ducournau has created a deeply relatable story about the awakening of a young woman’s sexuality that also happens to use blood-dripping cannibalism as the metaphor for that flowering. Clever, creepy, creative, intimate and icky, ‘Raw’ is an impressive debut that should gross out and intrigue anyone with an interest in experiencing those reactions simultaneously.
Garance Marillier stars as Justine, a fragile, shy, vegetarian teen who joins a veterinarian college with particularly intense hazing rituals. As part of her initiation, she’s forced to eat some cow organs, which instantly gives her a taste for meat. At the same time, the college party environment that shoves her in rooms full of scantily clad and sweaty young bodies kicks off her sexuality. Though the young woman does everything she can to avoid all of the school’s ridiculous rituals, her dismissive older sister (Ella Rumpf) forces her to join the party. All the overstimulation stirs up strange feelings in our heroine, including an insatiable taste for human flesh that rather quickly gets out of hand. (Not that there’s any way to casually get into cannibalism, of course.)
Ducournau shoots her first feature with impressive confidence, intelligence and style. She has a unique vision that’s viscerally effective and uncompromising. The director never shies away from any of the unsettling imagery that her script conjures, and it’s always filmed with a mixture of audience manipulation and off-kilter beauty. Performances are strong, achieving an uneasy air of naturalism within the heightened premise. The movie’s central metaphor is clearly explored without ever feeling like the audience is being beaten. It almost plays like an early Cronenberg film, the type that doesn’t get made much anymore.
That all being said, the fact that Cronenberg movies exist, as well as the last fifteen years or so worth of French Extremity cinema (especially the feminist self-cannibal tale ‘In My Skin’), means that ‘Raw’ has clear predecessors and Ducournau doesn’t add much particularly new. The movie is beset by a few first-film problems like an over-reliance on past influences and a somewhat overstretched premise that may have been better suited to a short than a feature. These issues are minor but nagging. For the most part, Ducournau has delivered a striking first horror feature that suggests she has quite a career ahead of her, provided that audiences can bear to look at her nasty visions.