There are party schools, and then there's French veterinary college. In Julia Ducournau's Raw, hot-bodied, animal-loving teens drink shots of rabbit kidneys. This is freshman Justine's (Garance Marillier) first week, and the upperclassmen — who prefer to be called "elders" or "great ones" — are hazing the newbies with buckets of blood, and forcing them to crawl on their knees to a topless, drug-hazy rave.
Tiny Justine is out of her league, even though she's being babysat by her older sister Alexia (Ella Rumpf), the campus goth. Marillier's pale, watchful virgin has huge eyes and scrawny legs. She stares at the chaos like a baby who's just woken up from a nap. But it turns out the university can't handle her. That chug of bunny flesh awakened an inner hunger. This vegetarian is coming of age — as a cannibal.
Ducournau has made a beautiful film about terrible horrors. At first, the young director keeps her distance. An early death is staged so far away that you can't tell who's to blame. She gives Marillier space to breathe while encouraging us to lean in. But when people start to get hurt, the camerawork blooms into something gorgeous and ghastly. Ducournau shoots peeling sheets of human skin with the care of a food photographer at a sushi bar, and fills the movie with tactile close-ups designed to make us cringe: a bad bikini wax, a hairball, a bitten lip. She plunges the screen into darkness, then blinks on the lights for a shock. Behold! Jars of mutant fetuses. Sad cows. Dead dogs. A horse panicking as its mouth is wedged open by medieval screws.
Ducournau has calibrated a tone of clinical mania, which makes us uneasy even in a casual scene in which Justine chomps into her first shawarma. Everything feels at once bold and offhand, as though, like Alexia, the camera is rolling its eyes at our alarm. She's a man-eating medical student, it seems to taunt. What did you expect?
Raw is a coming-of-age allegory about a girl discovering her powers. We could have guessed that before Justine pads around school in a sticky bloodstained robe, like Carrie of the dissection lab. But the movie's not about avenging yourself on bullies. Our heroine is the threat. Raw is about discovering your own appetites, your kinks, the secret joys that make you feel full. Ducournau encourages us to confuse feasting and fucking, especially since Justine lives in a dorm where she's coated in blue paint, shoved into a closet with a boy who's yellow, and ordered not to leave until she's green. Nothing is safe — not her dorm mini-fridge which houses her roommate's uncooked chicken, and definitely not her male roommate, hunky Adrien (Rabah Nait Oufella), who likes to lounge shirtless. Justine assumes it's chill to share a room with him because he's gay, but we get nervous when she drools over him playing soccer. Is it sex she’s craving, or steak?
Lead actress Marillier, just 18 when Raw premiered at Cannes, is seamless. She doesn't ask for sympathy, no matter how much the film traffics in shame. It's not enough for Justine, still imagining herself as a vegetable-loving innocent, to shove a cafeteria hamburger patty in her pocket. She has to be caught and publicly accused by the lunch lady, while the lens cowers behind her as the ketchup drips onto the tile. She has to become the school weirdo, although, as Ducournau hints, most people are furtively weird — they're just better at hiding it. When Justine emerges from a bathroom stall after vomiting you-don't-want-to-know-what, a perky girl smiles, "Two fingers will make it come up faster!"
As Marillier makes that transition from A-student to outcast, her childlike face becomes leaner, sharper, and unblinkingly intense. Justine gives up her last boundaries and pushes all the way into the camera, licking the lens as she slicks on lipstick and makes out with herself in a mirror while grinding to "Plus putes que toutes les putes" (a.k.a. "Bitchier Than All the Bitches") by the rapping French girl group Orties, who hiss, "Fuck 69 / Give me 666."
Justine's self-seduction is another of the movie's great music scenes, a moment of anticipation before yet another crazy night after which she'll wake up the following morning wondering, What did I drink? Still, it's bested by an earlier bit when the sweet girl has her first taste of human blood. She's alone, kind of, in a tomb-quiet room. As her curiosity stirs, an acoustic guitar starts to strum. Then she does it. She takes a bite, and the soundtrack explodes with the black-metal exaltation of an electric organ. This is what this growing girl’s been missing — and look out.