Many horror movies are content to make an audience jump, and little else. The best accomplish something more than that.
“Raw,” from French writer-director Julia Ducournau, is a terrific horror film, one that sets a serious premise — cannibalism as a metaphor for sexual desire — and follows it, through madness and its tragic consequences, to a grim, strange conclusion. Few films are both genuinely erotic and off-putting enough to inspire the occasional walkout. “Raw” succeeds at both.
Set in an isolated veterinary school, the story of “Raw” gets underway with a common trope of films about academic life: a hazing ritual that the entire student body participates in with manic zeal. On the first night, upperclassmen kidnap first-year students from their dorms, coaxing them to drink and dance in their underwear. Everyone seems to tolerate the forced hedonism, including the reserved newcomer Justine (Garance Marillier), who wanders through the crowd until she finds her older sister Alexia (Ella Rumpf), who plans to show Justine the ropes.
Out of school spirit, Alexia advises her sibling do everything asked of her, including the part where Justine — a vegetarian — must eat a raw rabbit heart. Reluctantly, Justine swallows, but then something strange happens: She develops a taste for raw flesh. The filets in her dormitory fridge initially satisfy her cravings, but she soon graduates to sampling something more taboo. On the cusp of cannibalism, Justine wants to satisfy her newfound hunger without getting caught, but with all the toothsome classmates at her disposal, it’s a real challenge to do so without attracting attention.
Ducournau’s masterstroke is to conflate Justine’s incipient cannibalism with more benign growing pains. There are scenes that one will recognize from many college movies: Justine walking in on her roommate (Rabah Nait Oufella) having sex, or Alexia schooling her sister — with brutal honesty — on how to make herself more attractive. But when Justine starts hooking up with someone, and she’s overcome by the need to do more than nibble, Marillier’s reaction to her desire looks like a mix of curiosity and fear.
“Raw” is a constant negotiation of that contradictory mix. Justine’s cannibalism, the film argues, is a craving like any other, albeit a more exaggerated version of one, not to mention one that comes with its own unique dilemma. How can Justine want to devour the very people to whom she feels an emotional connection? In the tradition of films from “Frankenstein” onward, “Raw” recognizes the monster as a tragic figure.
Coupled with the veterinary school setting, the sex-crazed students lend the film a heightened sense of corporeal realism. There is frequent nudity, with sweaty bodies glistening seemingly at every turn, and the characters all handle animals with ease. (One scene features Alexia with her entire arm inside a live cow.) At first, this milieu seems like just another riff on the theme of collegiate experimentation. But the perspective of “Raw” — seen through Justine’s eyes, in which her classmates are also her dinner menu — imbues every conversation, every touch, with an acute unease. Ducournau never opts for the predictable payoff or Hannibal Lecteresque pun: “You’re so cute I could eat you up.”
Instead, “Raw” focuses on Marillier’s carefully modulated performance, underscored by Ducournau’s color palette — veering from unflattering yellow interior light to the sumptuous reds of a party scene — that acts as a barometer for Justine’s insatiable hunger. The third act shows us a deepening of Justine’s yearning, with cannibalism becoming a metaphor for something more than sexual desire.
“Raw” marks Ducournau’s feature debut. Like Lucky McKee’s criminally underrated 2002 horror debut “May,” it could signal the arrival of a major talent. “Raw” never admonishes its antiheroine or recoils in judgment from what she wants. Its command of tone is constant, even in the film’s darkly droll final moments, during which you may not know whether to laugh or gag.
R. At Landmark’s E Street Cinema. Contains violence, gore, strong language, nudity and sexual situations. In French with subtitles. 99 minutes.