If it were just about veterinary school initiation rites, writer-director Julia Ducournau’s Raw — the English-language release title offers as many meanings as the original French Grave — would be unsettling and shocking enough. On her first night in a hall of residence, repressed rookie Justine (Garance Marillier) and her new roommate, gregarious gay guy Adrien (Nait Oufella), are both hauled out of bed by veteran students who act like masked terrorists. All the freshers are made to crawl slowly through a car park in night-clothes to a raucous rave — one of many sequences here in which people are reduced to acting (and suffering) like animals. Later, the whole class is doused in blood Carrie-style and have to wear stained whites to lectures — while Justine’s own older sister Alexia (Ella Rumpf) makes her eat an unidentifiable lump of pickled meat she’s told is a rabbit’s kidney. The hazing gets even more personal as girls and boys are sloshed with blue and yellow paint respectively, then told to go into a room and not come out ’til they’re all green.
Despite its body horror credentials, it’s also a tender, subtle film about family.
Amid all this Animal House/Jackass business, virginal vegetarian Justine’s awakening to the joys of eating meat might almost go unnoticed if it weren’t for the gleam in her eye as she goes from being nauseated when a stray meatball turns up in her mashed potatoes to pocketing a burger, sneaking out for shawarma and gazing longingly at spilled blood. After a Cronenbergian rash has peeled off her like a snakeskin, her mood swings and odd cravings — such as eating and sicking up her own hair — become more extreme. The film tips its hand in an astonishing sequence as a bizarre Brazilian waxing accident leads to Justine’s sister Alexia snipping off her own finger. With a jolly dog around to shoulder the blame, Justine takes advantage of the situation to use the severed digit first as a lipstick… and then as a chewy snack.
After that, there’s no going back to hummus, and Alexia, who has already undergone her own away-from-home transformation, shows her sister ways of satisfying her hunger, but long-simmering family tensions (and that gnawed finger) mean the relationship has startling downs between the genuinely moving ups. As often in classy horror, turning into a monster also means sexual liberation, with Justine exploring the far reaches of sexuality — though horny student guys (even theoretically not-interested Adrien) soon find she’s more predator than prey.
Justine and Alexia are never explicitly characterised as supernatural creatures, but the sisters — affectingly portrayed by newcomers Garance Marillier (who first played Justine in Ducournau’s short, Junior) and Ella Rumpf — owe a kinship with (mostly female) movie monsters like the French gourmet vampires of Trouble Every Day and the Canadian werewolf sisters of Ginger Snaps. Ducournau turns an unflinching camera eye on physical processes, as the sisters bond by trying to pee standing up and a very un-James Herriot sequence involves that old vet standby of an arm up a cow’s rectum. Often, Raw seems mercifully to elide horrors which take place between scenes only for a phone-video clip or a turned-back sheet to show the worst. And then there’s Joana Preiss and Laurent Lucas, who contribute tiny, creepily perfect performances as the girls’ parents. It turns out, despite its body horror credentials, it’s also a tender, subtle film about family.