Save the cannibalistic urges, relating to “Raw’s” protagonist Justine (Garance Marillier) as she navigates the bloody sex maze of Veterinarian school is easy. She’s an awkward freshman at the top of her class, a lonely place, as it turns out, especially for a lifelong vegetarian forced to eat raw rabbit kidney and doused with horse blood. All freshman endure this ritual, but it awakens a deep hunger in Justine.
Her sister, Alexia (Ella Rumpf), knows exactly what’s happened. I won’t spoil the specifics here, but suffice it to say, never have sisterhood and cannibalism gone so well together. For everything “Raw” is, and it is a lot, it’s anchored in the sisters’ relationship. It’s one fraught with jealousy and compassion in equal measure, though Justine and Alexia both aren’t saints by any measure. But when it counts, their scenes are the clearest of any in the movie.
Outside of those scenes, director Julia Ducournau packs the frame with bodies. The party scenes are a good example of this: Justine navigates rooms bursting with people, all sweaty and dancing, trying to contain herself and rarely succeeding. “Raw” is long on the idea that alone, surrounded by temptation, there are some things you can’t control. When she lets loose, the movie exudes the fierce eroticism of “Last Tango in Paris” with a tinge of body horror. As I watched it, I wondered why more horror didn’t strive to be this singular. Justine is a multifaceted antiheroine with as little knowledge as viewers have, perhaps even less, and horror needs characters like that.
She’s just finding her way, after all. Her overbearing mother and father, absent for most of the movie, don’t help with that. In trying to shelter their daughter, they’ve underestimated how the world outside would treat her. At school, Justine is just as trapped as the animals she’s training to treat. Ducournau goes for broke with this idea, layering complex symbolism over an already dense narrative and toying with how animalistic Justine really is. But when the movie really gets going, slow-mo shots of a horse running on a treadmill bog it down more than anything. In these moments, for how lean a flick it is, “Raw” can feel overcooked.
All the same, “Raw” carves out a unique place for itself in horror. It’s about surviving puberty as much as it is about family, and as much about sex as it is cannibalism. To Justine, maybe those two things are one in the same. I know that sounds gross, but “Raw’s” achievement is that, even when she’s munching on human flesh, you just want her to make it through okay.