The coming-of-age story is nothing new to cinema — but the coming-of-age horror flick is definitely quite the curveball, especially in the context of an aggressive pledging process for veterinary school that is nearly congruent to tales of fraternity hazing. It’s the absurdity of juxtaposing awakened cannibalism with hell week at vet school that makes French film “Raw” excel as smart horror.
The film centers on quiet, unassuming vegetarian Justine (Garance Marillier, “Junior”) beginning vet school, following family tradition by joining her bold sister Alexia (Ella Rumpf, “Tiger Girl”) at the school their parents attended. It’s an innocent enough premise — until one taste of raw meat during a ritual, however, awakens a hunger in Justine that sparks her gradual transition from shy to carnal.
The film functions best in its awareness of its own ridiculousness. Watching our heroine tear into a human finger like a chicken wing was so gruesome it produced uncomfortable laughter from the audience. But it’s also quick to remind us that cannibalism is a very real, horrifying fact of humanity that occurs in conjunction with psychopathy — that is to say it isn’t all that unrealistic. While the film isn’t nearly as gruesome as the internet hyped it to be, it certainly had hearts racing as the audience anxiously wondered what (or who) Justine would sink her teeth into next.
Marillier’s performance gives a tantalizing dive into addiction, one as incredulous to herself as it is to the audience. Transitioning from perpetually uncomfortable at college ragers to predatory drunk girl gliding through the dancefloor, her transformation is visceral and palpable. The cinematography by Ruben Impens (“Belgica”) perfectly adds to the tension of her progress, expertly capturing insatiable hunger by the end of the film.
The film isn’t without atmospheric fault — struggling to really zone in on a specific energy. Oftentimes the film felt impressively real, and then would just as quickly change to the surrealistic horror reminiscent of Dario Argento’s “Suspiria.” The entire film is a great work of horror, but the changing levels of realism added more confusion than psychological tension.
There were also additional plot nuances that were downright odd, mostly involving sexuality. Justine is paired with a gay male roommate (shocker, I know), with whom she shares a very strange sexual tension. Its culmination and aftermath was incredibly bizarre, albeit emotionally charged. The pairing of awakened sexuality and uncontrollable addiction provided some terrifyingly taut scenes, but its premise was ultimately unbelievable.
Yet, the most poignant facet of the film is this framing of learning by sexual shame with untamable addiction. Justine struggles to find a balance between expressing her sexuality. Social pressures, especially those from her sister, force her to explore her growing sexuality — all while constantly battling a craving she refuses to acknowledge.
With her first full-length effort, director and screenwriter Julia Ducournau (“Junior”) has crafted a fantastically tense entry in modern horror. “Raw” is a film that feels fresh in a world plagued with stale horror, thanks to its talented cast and cleverly thematic premise — proving to be a worthy watch for horror fans craving an original take on the genre.