If you’re going to make a movie about a vegetarian vet student who develops an insatiable desire for meat, it’s probably best to fully commit to the concept. And Raw does. This is not for the faint of heart—particularly those who might get squeamish about watching a heart being eaten.
It’s actually a rabbit kidney that prompts the change in Justine (Garance Marillier), a 16-year-old who moves into a high-rise dormitory to begin her veterinary studies. As part of an initiation rite, Justine and the other first-year students are doused with red paint and forced to line up and swallow raw animal organs. Hesitant because she’s been raised as a strict vegetarian, Justine eventually chokes the kidney down. Not long after, all sorts of meat begins to look good.
The transition is jarring, but not as much as you might think. French filmmaker Julia Ducournau, making her feature directorial debut, immediately establishes the sense that things are amiss in this particular world. There is an eerie prologue that involves a rural road, a lone figure, and a car accident, and features one of Ducournau’s most effective visual motifs: a single person isolated in the wide frame. This opening is followed by unnerving scenes of the willowy Justine (Marillier looks far younger than the rest of the cast) trying to negotiate her new life in a dorm that seems out of control. On her first night there, the older students trash the newcomers’ rooms, then march them down to the basement for another rite that turns into a rave. Like The Tribe, a Ukrainian film about a teen drug ring at a boarding school for deaf students, there’s hardly an adult to be found.
Raw is about the ravenous human appetite, and how difficult it can be to control.
Justine is no pushover, though. Marillier gives her an impulsive streak and inner confidence that keeps Raw from becoming a victim narrative. These qualities are only heightened when Justine turns omnivore, and her bold stare takes on the merciless gaze of a predator. From there, Raw takes a truly transgressive turn, marked in a scene in which Justine puts something decidedly off-menu in her mouth (an action Ducournau punctuates with a blackly comic music drop).
Given its meat-oriented ickiness and Justine’s fall from vegetarian grace, some might regard Raw as an extreme vegan message movie—Scared Straight! for the steak set. Yet note that Justine indulges in plenty of other impulses during her first year at school, including sex and drugs. In essence, Raw is about the ravenous human appetite, and how difficult it can be to control.
Even so, Raw isn’t concerned with pushing any single metaphor; the movie is more interested in immersing us in its world gone wild. Ducournau gives us scene after indelible scene, each of which disturbs in the most provocative way: by being both repellent and mesmerizing. There is a moment in which Justine gives in to her newly triggered hunger for two things—sex and meat—at the same time, and we watch in a state of horrified wonder. Here and elsewhere, Raw offers a grisly snapshot of the human condition, no matter what your particular appetite.