Almost no one ever asks young women what they desire — in movies or reality. Feminine cravings are still seen as a dire threat, a grand disturbance to the power structure, and the few movie men who dare speak the words “What do you want?” — like Noah in The Notebook — get elevated to folk hero status: Did he ... does he ... care?! But what happens when female characters truly hunger? What if their desires prove as grotesque as society assumes they are? This is the kind of fear director Julia Ducournau sets loose in her riveting body horror Raw, where a young woman comes to understand her own sexuality by way of one of the greatest of taboos: cannibalism.
In the beginning, young teacher’s pet Justine (Garance Marillier) is off to veterinarian school in the French countryside, where she’ll study alongside her older sister Alex (Ella Rumpf). Ducournau shows the school’s pastoral setting in wide, static shots, peaceful and devoid of animal life. She juxtaposes that external serenity with human chaos and drama in the school; it’s rush week, and Justine and her classmates are subjected to humiliating rituals and tests that show Homo sapiens for what they really are: filthy beasts.
On the first night, rowdy, masked seniors violently pull Justine and her gay roommate Adrien (Rabah Nait Oufella) from their beds. The two, along with all the other newbies, are prodded into crawling like cattle as they’re corralled into an after-hours discotheque in an abandoned wing of the school. When innocent Justine enters the party, Ducournau’s camera follows her in one long, unnerving tracking shot through a maze of frenzied, writhing bodies. Marillier lets herself go almost limp, so it’s like Justine’s body is not hers to own, just pushed along from room to room until she runs into Alex — this sister is out for metaphorical blood (and, later, real blood) on the dance floor. She’s totally vampyric, aggressively sexual, and exactly the opposite of Justine.
Soon after the party, Alex forces Justine to break her lifelong vow of vegetarianism to eat a raw rabbit kidney, and — yes — this awakens Justine’s obsessive hunger for human flesh, a craving so deep it can’t be sated merely by her tearing through raw chicken breasts like a feral raccoon as Adrien stares on in disgust. No, only human flesh will do, and where to find it becomes a problem.
But the joy of this film is that even if Justine weren’t a cannibal, the story of two sisters on divergent emotional paths would already be a full helping of horror and humor. Never mind the mutilation and masticating we see from these two ravenous women; my favorite scenes are when Alex teaches Justine how to pee standing up and when Alex coerces Justine into enduring a Brazilian. In the latter, Ducournau goes in for a pube close-up, little brown hairs clinging to hot pink wax; this is in no way sexy. Alex can’t quite grip the wax strip, and the hairs get fruitlessly tugged on again and again. Ducournau draws tension from the seemingly ordinary — feminine hazing rituals where pain is beauty and beauty pain. If that’s not scary, I don’t know what is.
The women’s competitive, murderous relationship suggests the psychodrama of Brian De Palma’s Sisters, which tells of separated conjoined-twin serial killers, but in Raw the soul siblings hurt themselves just as much as they hurt other people. When Justine smears lipstick on her face and grinds her hips into a mirror to a song whose chorus is literally “I like to bang the dead,” or when she rips her teeth into her own arm to quell her cravings, these scenes echo Andrzej Zulawski’s Possession, in which a woman is so wracked by sexual madness that she hurls herself over and over into a wall in a subway tunnel.
A scene where drunk-on-passion Justine rips into her kissing partner’s lips, snagging a tasty chunk of flesh, brings to mind Claire Denis’ archetypal cannibalistic-love thriller Trouble Every Day. But Raw isn’t derivative — it’s fresh, funny, and grounded in reality. Underneath all the blood and guts, this is the story of a woman whose body demands love in extremity and the only person who’ll ever understand her fully: her sister.