When it was screened at the Toronto International Film Festival this past September, Julia Ducournau's cannibal coming-of-age story Raw attracted widespread media attention, after it was reported that people were fainting during screenings and ambulances had to be called. I can say with assuredness that the level of gore and violence on display in Raw is enough to make even the most ardent fans of violence a little queasy, as it ranks among the best debut films in recent memory.
Justine (Garance Marillier) is about to start veterinarian school, following in the footsteps of her mother, father, and currently enrolled older sister, Alexia (Ella Rumpf). This is also a strictly-vegetarian family, though once Justine settles in and begins to experience the distressing hazing rituals that come for freshmen, she is forced to at one point, eat meat. And when this happens, she begins to develop an inner-frenzy for flesh that, as the plot plays out, results in a series of voracious and disturbing ways.
Taking as much inspiration from the wave of new French extremity in the early 2000s as it does from American teen campus comedies from the same era, Raw manages to both provoke and delight audiences in creating a singular approach to the typical cannibal narrative. Disturbing at once moment and then suddenly gut-bustlingly hilarious, it manages to entertain by sheer virtue of unpredictability. More than that, it makes for an atypical approach to the growing pains of life that everyone goes through, as Justine's flesh-feasting eventually gets in the way of her ability to make friends and form personal attachments.
Eventually she has to compete with another at her school, and its here that Raw is at its best; where the horror-based elements are in sync with the tongue-in-cheek comedic metaphor of the surrounding situation. It can be tricky balancing dark horror and dark humour but Ducournau has a knack for it, making for an amusing, if not banal series of moments that actually make the viewer somewhat at ease for taking pleasure in watching its more brutal moments.
The greyish-toned cinematography throughout helps to accentuate Justine's journey of being in a new place and experiencing abnormal changes in a near-isolated state, though there are a few colourful rave-like sequences near the start which throw the viewer into a kaleidoscopic, disorienting experience. This sense of overwhelming alienation carries through to other sequences, such as one where she tosses and turns underneath her bedsheets, leaving the viewer to wonder if she is enraptured with pain or pleasure. Most importantly, the film's visual element says more about Justine than the script does, and its because of how Ducournau presents this unconventional odyssey of a young woman blossoming into adulthood that it finds its strength.
Raw is a well-polished and certainly insane first feature, and I'm sure that in the years to come, Julia Ducournau will become a household name in the realm of modern horror. If this is just the start of her feature filmmaking career, it'll be a long and prosperous one for sure.