Raw has been enthusiastically billed as the French cannibal horror movie that caused spells of dizziness, fainting and vomiting at its Toronto Film Festival screening. But when compared to the most infamous products of New French Extremity – the early century’s transgressive works of sex, body horror and ultraviolence, including Marina de Van’s In My Skin and Pascal Laugier’s Martyrs – there is something decidedly medium-rare about the grisly shocks at debut director Julia Ducournau’s disposal, which seem to merely distract from the story’s thematic undernourishment.
When Justine (talented newcomer Garance Marillier) first arrives at veterinary college, she could have hardly expected the hazing rituals that include soaking freshmen with blood, Carrie-style, and forcing them to eat a rabbit’s kidney. Justine’s a vegetarian, which makes this last one a sticking point; yet she is urged by her sister Alexia (Ella Rumpf) to sacrifice her beliefs in order to fit in it. From there, it’s a slippery slope to eating a hamburger, raw chicken, and then – in the film’s key scene, which prompted some audience members to actually howl with disbelief – a human finger.
The depiction of cannibalism in cinema is similar to that of vampirism, as a catalyst of sex, agency and desire – and the chemical changes affecting Justine’s body are inextricably linked with her own burgeoning adulthood. For instance, a scene where she admires her roommate Adrien (Rabah Nait Oufella) playing football prompts her nose to bleed; then, when she later finds herself having sex with him, the only way she can reach orgasm is by biting deep into her arm.
Yet if Ducournau intends to present cannibalism as an extreme fetish, there is something odd about her choice to centre the story on sibling rivalry. A scene where Justine gets too drunk in a nightclub, then has her actions exploited by her sister, is supremely well-realised, but largely unsupported by the narrative; their relationship is, by turns, amiable and bitter, realistic and contrived. And plenty of other revelations are too messy, existing to shock or provide cheap laughs instead of furthering the central thesis.
It’s this attitude that makes Raw seem a little childish, not only in its gleeful deployment of gory prosthetics, but in its dialogue, which is peppered with profanity and nihilistic edginess. Perhaps that’s the point – a coming-of-age story where the contradictory confusion of hormones are embraced? Regardless, it’s the sort of thing that’ll play well on the midnight movie circuit, but elsewhere comes across as shockingly forgettable.
Raw is released in selected cinemas on 7th April 2017.
Watch the trailer for Raw here: