This is a reprint of our review from the 2016 Cannes Film Festival.
We’ve all known vegetarians who have decided to change their diet out of concern for animal rights or the environment or based upon religious beliefs. And to those who forgo meat, it’s usually a deeply held conviction. Those same people might not be very kind to 32-year-old writer-director Julia Ducournau‘s “Raw.” In it, we meet bright-eyed Justine (Garance Marillier), who follows in the footsteps of both her parents (Laurent Lucas and Joana Preiss) and older sister (Ella Rumpf) by attending her first year at veterinary school. In the (pun intended) bitingly comic opening scene, Justine orders plain mashed potatoes, but as she chows the food down she finds a piece of sausage in her mash. Her parents are outraged; they want the shy and wide-eyed Justine to preserve her plant-based heritage. It’s a tongue-in-cheek start to a story that finds the protagonist only at the beginning of her carnivorous ways.
Taking place during Justine’s first week at school, the film is placed in a surreal atmosphere, as Ruben Impens’s photography uses the brutalist architecture of the college with eerily spacious wide shots reminiscent of “Suspiria” meshed with the production design of “Carrie” (with”Raw” eerily paying tribute to the pigs’ blood scene from Brian De Palma‘s film).
And indeed, some of the hazing rituals that Justine needs to go through are harrowing enough to evoke the tactics that were used on Sissy Spacek’s high-school senior 40 years ago. At one point, she is disgustingly forced to eat bloody, raw liver. It’s a wincingly preposterous scene that nevertheless has a lasting effect on the viewer and the way he or she might view the eventual victims in the film. At this point, we’re in the same universe as “Carrie,” an obvious point of reference for Ducournau, and just like that movie, we shouldn’t fear too much for our heroine’s safety. In fact, we deeply fear her and what she’s capable of.
To say that Justine’s first taste of blood does something to her psyche would be an understatement. After all the cruel hazing, one would conclude that the only way she can survive the first semester of this vet school would be to indulge in the nastier activities she’s experienced. That is, of course, what happens to Justine, whose newly found love for uncooked meat reaches a pinnacle of delectability too juicy to reveal in this review, but be forewarned that this newfound love of animal meats goes to greater depths of the food chain and eventually mixes in some unwarranted victims. And it’s Marillier’s committed performance as Justine that carries you through every over-the-top, hard-to-believe twist — she makes it seem real.
The film, which premiered as part of Critics’ Week at Cannes, justly won the FIPRESCI prize. Ducourneau, a first-time writer-director, shows surprisingly sharp command and, more importantly, restraint given the subject matter. Although the film is rooted in arthouse film territory, and is particularly inspired by the films of David Cronenberg and David Lynch, “Raw” turns out to be its own wild animal. It has rightly earned the buzz that has surrounded the picture, and Ducourneau’s uncompromising vision is one to watch. [A-]