The first-year veterinary students assemble in their crisp white coats for a group photo, smiling sweetly before being drenched in a cascades of blood of mysterious provenance. Afterward, smeared and crusted with the red stuff, they line up to take their communion: a raw rabbit kidney. One girl protests: She’s from a vegetarian family of vets and has never eaten meat. It’s not until her wild-eyed older sister intervenes, pressuring her to fit in with the group, that she swallows the organ. Welcome to vet school, kids, better get used to the gore and guts. Some will take to it with more zeal than others.
This is the backdrop of “Raw,” the debut feature film from French writer/director Julia Ducournau, who spins one of the most inspired and fiercely original horror yarns seen in years. With a culture of extreme university hazing as a backdrop, Ducournau uses cannibalism as a means of exploring female sexuality, hunger and coming of age. For the naive Justine (Garance Marillier), her blossoming is far more extreme than expected. It’s not pretty or ladylike, but it is who she is.
The rabbit kidney causes Justine a severe allergic reaction, which awakens a tremendous hunger for the flesh forbidden by her upbringing. At first, it’s for gas station kebabs, purloined burger patties and raw chicken breasts, and then for something far more taboo.
The word “cannibalism” tends to eclipse everything else. But in “Raw,” it’s the wild hazing that initially shocks, as second year students drag rookies out of their beds and into underground tunnels for booze and sex-soaked bacchanals. By the time Justine nibbles delicately on a severed finger, or takes a tentative lick of a head wound, it’s almost cute.
Her overbearing live-wire of an older sister, Alexia (Ella Rumpf), eggs Justine on to fit in with the insane culture of this place — the drinking, the drugs, the sex games, the food. Alexia wants Justine to be like her, but they become locked in a codependent, destructive rivalry, fighting over the attention of Justine’s gay roommate, Adrien (Rabah Nait Oufella).
Ducournau’s film is horrific, a weird and riotous iteration, shirking most generic conventions. Consumption of human flesh is one of the most aberrant, deplorable and unimaginable acts, and in embracing that taboo subject, Ducournau cleverly achieves a feminist interpretation of cannibalism. It becomes a symbol of independence and freedom, as well as of erotic pleasures of the flesh inextricably intertwined with sex and puberty.
Ducournau has a bold, striking visual style. Stark white or red lighting beats down on the feral, writhing bodies of the students at work or at play. Her camera winds its way underneath Justine’s white sheets, as she thrashes, tormented by her transformation. A dramatic, operatic score by Jim Williams references retro 1970s horror classics.
Always, we are drawn to Justine’s eyes, as she consumes the world around her, as both her old and new self. Ducournau’s film is at once intellectual and visceral — it is as motivated from the brain as it is from the body. With this unusual device of cannibalism, Ducournau vividly illustrates a uniquely feminine body horror, both emotional and corporeal, rendered in vast, bold, dripping red strokes.
Starring Garance Marillier, Ella Rumpf and Rabah Nait Oufella. Directed by Julia Ducournau.
Rated R for aberrant behavior, bloody and grisly images, strong sexuality, nudity, language and drug use/partying. Check listings for theaters. 1 hour, 39 minutes.
Bottom line: Uses cannibalism to explore female sexuality, hunger and coming of age