Female sexuality carries the same taboo as a ravenous flesh-eating teenager in this provocative feature debut from French filmmaker Julia Ducournau. “Raw” may start out like any other coming-of-age tale, but as soon as Justine (Garance Marillier) gets her first taste of meat, she’s transformed from good girl to social outcast, rejected by society for her carnal desires.
Ducournau tears down the walls of a genre so often identified with male filmmakers. (Like the father of body horror, David Cronenberg.) Shrewdly using the art-horror format to upend the traditional teen Bildungsroman, “Raw” makes it impossible to look away — as much as you might want to.
The film opens as Justine is dropped off at veterinarian school by her staunchly vegetarian parents. Meat pulls focus early on, when Justine spits out a greyish-brown ball of it from a bland gob of mashed potatoes. Once at school, the young newbie is abruptly whisked out of bed to a grotesque hazing ritual that finds all the freshmen doused in pig’s blood, and forced to down raw rabbit kidney. When she protests on vegetarian principle, Justine thinks she has found an ally in her older sister, Alexia (Ella Rumpf), also a student at the school. Justine is shocked to learn that Alexia has already discovered her taste for meat, and the sisters begin an epic dance that will test the limits of their blood bond.
When Justine develops a nasty rash all over her body, she visits a doctor who gingerly peels away layers of her skin and then shares some insight over a cigarette. “How do you see yourself?” asks the doctor. “Average,” she replies. From this grisly doctor to a trucker who fills his veins with pig’s blood when he’s over the legal limit, outsiders from the town are eager to warn Justine about the dangers of vet school.
Her only friend is her roommate, Adrien (Rabah Naït Oufella), whose unapologetic sexuality stands in stark contrast to Justine’s doe-eyed innocence. Ducournau uses Justine’s interactions to show the ways in which girls teach each other how to feel about their bodies. After retching up balls of her own hair in the bathroom, a classmate cheerfully suggests she use two fingers next time. When Alexia notices Justine’s hairy armpits, she asserts: “At your age, I already gave myself Brazilians.” Lying spread eagled before her older sister, the family dog sniffs between her legs before Alexia dives in with the wax.
The vet school setting is ripe for symbolism, allowing Ducournau to make ample use of animals — both their bodies and their instincts. A pig cadaver on a gurney; an anesthetized horse hanging by its hooves; Alexia’s gloved arm diving into a cow’s anus. These stark images are juxtaposed with Justine on her hands and knees, snapping for a taste of flesh; the way bystanders must pull Justine and Alexia off each other during a fight as if they were rabid dogs; or the savage abandon with which Justine devours her first shawarma from the bone.
In interviews, Ducournau resists pinning down meaning or metaphor. Body horror fans will find much to satisfy their own taste for blood in “Raw,” without venturing to guess what the filmmaker might be trying to say. But anyone who has ever felt shamed for their desires will recognize themselves in Justine, even of they have never found themselves hunched on the kitchen floor in the middle of the night, tearing into a slab of raw fish.
“Raw” opens in select theaters March 10. It is distributed by Focus World.