When they write the histories of the cannibal film, many years from now, they'll have to save a whole chapter for Raw. It's a right marvel all the way around: it has the unapologetic, unblinking gore of the all the most sordid examples of Italian cannibal films from the late '70s and early '80s,* but not their leering freakshow sensibility; it's too witty and at times honest-to-God goofy to fit comfortably in the severe, punishing wave of ultra-violent French films that mostly peaked about ten years before Raw came out, but hasn't ever quite faded out altogether. It's a terribly good snapshot of being a teenage girl arriving at college and being totally overstimulated by everything that happens there, born from an explicitly, irreducibly female point of view - it's the feature debut of writer-director Julia Ducournau - and it's also a terribly good schlocky horror film, a genre typically not observed for its progressive gender politics.

Anyway, let's make a long story short: mostly, Raw is just a damn good movie, vivacious and unsparing and smart as hell, equally successful as a grotty shocker as it is a sensitive depiction of late-adolescent girlhood trying to present itself as womanhood. I am obviously better qualified to talk about the former thing than the latter, but part of Raw and Ducournau's genius lies in rendering the experiences of the main character Justine (Garance Marillier) in such precise, accessible ways that I could find myself nodding excitedly and murmuring, "yes, that's exactly what it's like" in regard to a movie that depicts not one single narrative beat that in any way resembles something that happened to me as a young man in college. Credit to the script, credit to Marillier's deeply expressive, worry-wrinkled face, which offers volumes of depth to Justine that honestly credit her status as a callow, literally immature overachiever, while comfortably situating her as a full-realised protagonist for a movie that's too drunk on symbolism for it to possibly survive with anything less than perfection in its center.

Justine is the younger of two daughters in a family of vegetarian veterinarians, and on the strength of her impossibly good grades has just barreled here way into a particularly prestigious vet school. We meet her at more or less the exact moment she arrives, so that her first experience of extreme disorientation is ours as well, as all of the incoming students are rounded up in some manner of not-quite-sexualised hazing ritual where their mattresses are thrown out onto the front lawn of their dorm, as they shuffle unhappily in their underwear. The really tough hazing ritual is still to come, though: as part of their initiation into the weirdly martial culture of the vet school, the newbies all have to eat a raw rabbit kidney on their first morning. Having been vegetarian her whole life, Justine tries to beg off of this stupid little task, but caves in where her older sister Alexia (Ella Rumpf), an upperclassman who was also raised vegetarian, blithely confirms that she at the kidney in her year, and what of it?

What of it is that Justine has a hell of a bad reaction: a pervasive rash that leads to her skin peeling in big pieces. And that's certainly the least of it, because the other reaction is that Justine now has an insatiable craving for raw meat. Just chicken at first, which is already quite gross enough, thank you, but before very long, she's staring with unmasked hunger at her friends, classmates, and gay male roommate Adrien (Rabah Nait Oufella).

This is absolutely not a complicated metaphor: sheltered young person arrives at college, is immediately made to break all the rules she so treasured as a child, and grows more or less addicted to destructive carnality. Call it a film about being oversexed in college or getting into trouble with alcohol, it amounts to the same thing, and Raw's great success as a coming-of-age drama is all about how Justine learns to contain and channel her desires despite everyone and everything around her encouraging her to keep doing wrong.

The only place where the film gets itself into real trouble is when it tries to go overboard in extending this into every possible direction; and even more, when it begins to treat Justine's cannibalism literally. I mean, it is literal cannibalism, in the context of the film's story. But initially, it's clearly cannibalism as a proxy, and around the midway point, it increasingly becomes cannibalism as actual cannibalism, which the film very confusingly posits is something more like a genetic affliction, given that Alexia turns out to have exactly the same urges as her little sister (and then there's the final scene, which is just so fucking bad that I can't stand it). Raw is so absurdly good at being a coming-of-age story about teenage female sexuality learning to identify and modulate itself that when it's about anything else, it feels a little annoying; that, and the fact that as it grows into more of a conventional gross-out horror film in its last 30 minutes, it loses all of the things that made it such a beautiful one-of-a-kind charmer of gore cinema.

Besides Marillier's amazing performance, that mostly refers to the film's wonderfully skewed tone; this is an oddly funny movie, and what's even odder is how well the film earns it. A lot of the time, it's not even because there are jokes; it's just the natural bumbling, awkward silliness of being a bookish kid who hasn't figured out to navigate an adult world, and whose best attempt is more charmingly inept than anything.

Still, Raw is primarily a body horror film, though some of its most grueling moments aren't that at all. Vomitous reputation and all, the moment in the film that got my stomach heaving the most was a close-up of Alexia trying and failing to give Justine an at-home Brazilian wax: the little goose pimples poking up as a sizable patch of Justine's flesh is dragged up like Alexia is trying to rip the skin right off of her sister's pelvis is its own kind of visceral feeling, one that's all the more relatable for not being melodramatically excessive.โ€  Not to say that the film isn't a remarkably effective showcase for extremes of gore, because it absolutely is: Justine crouched in a corner, slurping the flesh off a severed finger like she's trying to get that irritating, stuck-on beat of meat from a chicken wing, is the kind of image not likely to abandon me any time soon, nor is the protracted scene of her retching up gobs of hair that she'd been nibbling on (a scene capped by a "funny because it's horrifying" punchline). Ducournau and crew present all this accumulated blood and tissue with a zeal that matches any gutmuncher on record for detail and enthusiasm of presentation, though it's staged with a calm naturalism that has nothing to do with the extravagant limb-splitting setpieces of the genre's heyday.

So it's kind of the best of both worlds: bloody spectacle for the gorehounds, character-oriented restraint in how that spectacle is choreographed for the art film crowd. Though I will say that art film lovers who hate gore will have a much rougher time with Raw than gore lovers who have no patience for art films. At any rate, I am both a gorehoud and an art film lover, and while I really wish that Ducournau had rethought that "cannibalism is a family curse" angle that comes to the fore in the film's last third, everything up till then makes Raw easily the most energetic, and unexpectedly wise horror film released in 2017.




*And just what is the most sordid Italian cannibal film, do you think? Cannibal Ferox? Devil Hunter, directed by that god among talentless imbeciles, Jesรบs Franco? It's quite a conundrum, though I am at least certain that it's not Cannibal Holocaust, which is merely the most notorious.




โ€ This is maybe more a sign of my personal sympathy than the film's own effectiveness. I've never had my crotch waxed, thank the good Lord, but I once and only once had my chest waxed, and the pain! I would have confessed to any crime to make it stop.