Imagine American Pie, if rather than using that famous pie as a sex aid, Jason Biggs had instead eaten it, taking him down an obsessive path of consumption that leads him into cannibalism. That’s a rough elevator pitch for writer-director Julia Ducournau’s astounding debut, Raw.
In this case it’s not a pie, but a small uncooked piece of rabbit kidney - served up to timid teen Justine (Garance Marillier) as part of the elaborate hazing ritual at her Belgian veterinary college - that sets the plot in motion. Raised by her strict vegetarian parents, Justine has managed to make it this far in life without so much as a sliver of salami passing her lips, but her first taste of meat is a life-changing moment.
That night, Justine discovers her body has broken out in a rash, and she’s unable to sleep; you might say she’s suffering from a severe case of the meat sweats. She’s addicted to flesh now, and like any junkie, she can only control her habit by feeding it. Attempting to maintain the facade of vegetarianism - lest her older sister, Alexia (Ella Rumpf), a fellow student, inform their parents of her lapse - Justine finds herself sneaking off in the middle of the night to feast on shwarma at roadside gas stations, and lifting burgers from the school canteen.
As with those old anti-drug movies in which a puff of a joint leads to heroin addiction, prostitution and murder, Justine’s hunger for meat leads to stronger stuff. Following an incident in which a finger is severed and subsequently consumed by Justine, the shy teen turns to cannibalism.
Justine’s newfound insatiable desire for meat also leads her down a path of sexual awakening, with her unfortunate gay roommate becoming the victim of her secondary lust. Her growing reputation leads to stigmatisation from her fellow students following a party in which Justine attempts to snog anyone in sight and ends up the subject of a damning viral video.
If all this sounds ridiculous, well it’s because Raw is essentially ridiculous, but Ducournau’s straight direction and Marillier’s deadpan tortured performance sell the film’s conceit in blackly comic style, the latter proving herself gifted with crackerjack comic timing. As a director, Ducournau displays a talent for comic staging, always placing her camera in the ideal place to make the most of the film’s many comic scenarios, cutting at just the right moment to accentuate the absurdity of the situation and extend a laugh. She also has an eye for a striking image, none more so than a visually audacious scene in which Justine and a male student, the former dowsed in blue paint, the latter in yellow, are locked in a room and told they can’t leave until both have “turned green.”
Though it’s outwardly a horror movie, Raw is one of the all-time great college comedies, albeit a very Central European take on the sub-genre, a world away from the ‘safe space’ culture of Anglo-Saxon campuses (were this school located outside Boston rather than Brussels, it would likely have been shut down long ago). But a love letter to higher education it’s certainly not; these are the worst days of Justine’s life. Simply making it through the day in these blood-soaked, hellish halls of learning is enough for Justine without having to devise ways to sink her teeth into human flesh.
Ducournau’s film is about finding your identity only to discover it’s one society isn’t willing to accept, and ultimately it’s about the animal we all keep caged inside in order to occupy a space in the civilized world. Quench your cinematic hunger with Raw - it’s bloody brilliant!