French horror films are gaining increasing notoriety around the world, and the ones that get chosen for release in the UK are often particularly extreme and provocative. Raw comes in the wake of grisly films like Martyrs and Ils, but manages to transcend them both by keeping a firmer grasp on reality throughout.
After being forced to eat an uncooked rabbit kidney during a hazing ritual in her first year of veterinary school, Justine (Garance Marillier) ends up with a hideous rash and an insatiable appetite for flesh. This strains her relationship with her older sister Alexia (Ella Rumpf), also studying at the college, as well as with her gay housemate Adrien (Rabah Nait Oufella), who starts to look like forbidden fruit in more ways than one.
Justine is an atypical outcast before discovering her strange predilections. There’s nothing obviously different about her, but she always remaining on the outside of the fun looking in. The party scenes here are almost as lurid as Spring Breakers, showing the repulsive excess that a little independence can cause, but instead of that film's Spring slow-mo debauchery, Raw keeps a murky plausibility amid its bacchanalian revelry.
This authenticity is enhanced by using a cast of virtual unknowns as the students. Garance Marillier and Ella Rumpf are both excellent, and their sibling relationship is completely credible in its contradictory shifts between hostility and compassion. Laurent Lucas gets a cameo of sorts as the girls’ father and the film’s biggest name. He previously starred in Calvaire, another harrowing 21st-century French language horror that descends into utter madness, and his face is a harbinger of the hysterics to come.
Strip away the murder and cannibalism, however, and you still have a fantastic drama about the daunting freedom of the first year of university and how dangerous hazing rituals can be for the teenage psyche. Replace the addiction to raw meat with any other weakness for alcohol, drugs or sex and the film could play out in a very similar fashion, albeit with less bloodshed.
Julia Ducournau has written and directed a highly sophisticated, intelligent debut that puts other teenage dramas to shame with its vitality, in spite of its outré subject matter. The combination of graphic visuals and intense sound design should set the hardiest stomachs churning exactly as intended, ensuring the film is exactly like Justine likes her meat - bloody and a little too close to the bone.