French director Julia Ducournau makes her feature film directorial debut with this unsettling coming-of-age horror film that does for cannibalism what Ginger Snaps did for werewolves.
Coming of age has always been a fertile playground for horror films and writers to play in. From the dangers of the outside world that face those who venture from home, to the horrors that lurk when puberty or other changes occur to the body at a delicate time, its a ripe field to harvest for metaphor. One need not look much further than the films of David Cronenberg to see the various aspects that body horror can take on film. Julia Ducournau’s debut film Raw takes the example and influence of Cronenberg body horror and merges it with the type of coming of age stories seen in films like May and Ginger Snaps and from that combination comes a unique genre hybrid. Raw is as much an indie drama about sisterly bonds as it is a visceral horror film about the slippery slope one takes towards cannibalism as a lifestyle.
Raw primarily follows Justine (Garance Marillier), a girl from a strict vegetarian family that has never been allowed to eat meat. Justine is starting at the same veterinarian school as her older sister Alexia (Ella Rumpf); a school that has an intense fraternity culture into which all first-year students are inducted. Justine has always been studious and introverted; she struggles to make friends with the fellow students and her gay roommate Adrien (Rabah Naït Oufella). She comes to rely on her sister for a connection at school, even though Alexia is older and runs in a different clique with the established veterinary school fraternity. As the hazing in the fraternity continues, she is asked to eat a pair of rabbit kidneys but refuses to do so, being her staunch vegetarian background. She claims Alexia is also a vegetarian as well, but she eats the kidneys and makes Justine do the same if she wants to stay part of the pledge class. However, eating the kidneys seems to awaken a dormant nature within Justine, she starts to sneak meat, needing rawer and fresher cuts to stave off rashes and withdrawal. It all comes to a head once Justine is presented with the choice of eating human flesh, opening a door from which there is no turning back.
In many ways, Raw is a unique animal. It takes elements of body horror and marries them to a very taboo subject in cannibalism, but the film works just the same as an examination of sibling rivalry and trying to find your own identity away from your family. Much like Ginger Snaps and May tie in growing up physically/personally with a horror metamorphosis, Raw does the same and doesn’t necessarily demonize the change. Cannibalism here is just a metaphor for that change, a change in lifestyle that we learn is a family trait and doesn’t change the issues of sibling rivalry between Alexis and Justine. The relationship between the two is what keeps the movie watchable, but ultimately the movie feels like it would be better served being a short. The denouement is right out of The Twilight ZoneThe Hunger but really give the movie character and the film would be better served with more of these types of sequences.
Ultimately, while Raw is an interesting film with a compelling character arc, much like May, the viscera and gore on screen undercuts the story its trying to tell. Gorehounds will dig it, but its pacing and simplistic ending make it a film that is worth seeing once at the most.