When aspiring cannibal Justine (Garance Marillier) is told that her dog is going to have to be put down due to the danger posed by it tasting human meat, it’s hard to stifle a laugh. It’s a fine line in horror between sincere scares and accidental absurdity, and one that Raw, for the most part, walks with black comic precision. An astonishingly assured debut from writer-director Julia Ducournau, this tale of bloodlust, sexual awakening, and humanity’s descent into its animal state is a bludgeoningly powerful piece of work that is occasionally let down by isolated moments of bizarrely sloppy editing and writing.
Taking place during a psychotic hazing week at a prestigious vet school, Raw sees Justine – initially an avowed vegetarian – undergo a fundamental transformation after being forced to eat raw rabbit kidney at one of the hideous rituals for new students. Starting with cooked meat, before moving onto the raw stuff, it isn’t long before her hunger mutates into a violent craving for human flesh. What’s immediately very impressive is the way that Ducournau creates horror before the cannibalism kicks off, from Justine being frogmarched in her pyjamas to an underground rave to the clever use of lighting and framing that makes what should be familiar environments seem alien.
From there, it’s a descent into the skin-peeling, hair-vomiting body horror that would make Cronenberg proud before the centrepiece scene in which Justine figures out exactly what she’s hungry for when she eats her sister Alexia’s (Ella Rumpf) finger. It’s a sequence that switches from dark humour to complete sincerity with sledgehammer force before letting the comedy take over again, and it’s probably Raw’s most impressive feat that this moment works so tonally well. Things escalate bloodily, and though the early reports of people fainting and vomiting in the aisles do seem ridiculous, the gore is unsparingly presented when it does arrive.
In establishing the atmosphere of hysteria, Ducournau does also give us a lifeline to normality through Justine’s roommate Adrien (Rabah Nait Oufella), and its their connection that provides Justine with much-needed humanity and warmth. It’s easy enough to read Raw as simply an allegorical take on the stresses and fears of the first week at uni, and its structure encourages this take. In trying to balance all these elements, though, missteps were perhaps inevitable. These dud scenes are uncommon and not entirely unexpected, but they can drag you out of an experience that requires full immersion to work.
Unfortunately, the worst example of these scenes is the ending. For a while, it looks like Raw is going to stick the near-impossible landing its story demands, before it wildly overshoots and slams face-first into a final scene that’s as superfluous as it is atrociously executed. It’s almost enough to drop the film a whole star rating, but all the build-up to this conclusion is as great as, if not better than, what’s preceded it, so, despite the overwhelming disappointment just as the credits roll, Raw is an almost consistently fantastic debut from a frighteningly good new French talent.