Warning: This review contains spoilers for the French-Belgian horror film RAW. This review also discusses sex, cannibalism, and other sensitive topics. Please be advised.

Honestly, it’s my fault.

I should have known better than to try to enjoy an expensive steak tartar before beginning RAW, the French-Belgian body horror film from newcomer Julia Ducournau. I just wasn’t thinking straight. All this is to say that upon finishing the film, my steak tartar was woefully lukewarm and uneaten on my plate.

Now, back to the review.

The Basics

RAW begins like this: A car traveling silently along a straight and narrow road suddenly veers off course before crashing into a tree, leaving nothing but wreckage in its wake. The opening scene is an apt metaphor for the journey our heroine takes from doe-eyed ingénue to cannibal extraordinaire.

Justine (Marillier) is an overachieving first-year veterinarian student who comes from a stringent family of vegetarians. Meat is off limits for her. Her tidy life is thrown into chaos when she is forced to eat raw rabbit kidney during a freshman hazing ritual. The taste of flesh is all it takes to trigger an insatiable hunger within her. Soon, Justine must surrender herself to her new cannibalistic cravings or suffer insanity instead.

horror film raw
RAW is an example of New French Extremity, a genre of transgressive 21st century French films.

Rolling Stone calls Ducournau’s feature debut a “modern horror masterpiece” and a “contender for best horror movie of the decade.” Others have praised it as a feminist manifesto that celebrates sexual liberation and criticizes the politicking of the female body. I wouldn’t call it a horror masterpiece, and, in my opinion, RAW certainly isn’t the best horror movie of the decade. I’ll get to the feminist manifesto opinion later in my review.

At its core, RAW is, undeniably, a cannibal horror film that is lean and tough to digest. It is claustrophobic chaos and neurotic nausea wrapped in a bloody bow. It is strikingly savage, superbly styled, and exquisitely executed. Overall, Ducournau succeeds in creating an unsavory film that is allowed to simmer unapologetically in its own atmospheric juices.

The Execution

For a film that purportedly made audiences faint, RAW is a rather mild affair, with only the subtle afternote of gore to keep the palate wet. But ultimately, that’s a good thing. The film refrains from employing standard horror tropes, instead relying solely on the concept to disturb viewers. And make no mistake — while it may not be scary, RAW is disturbing.

Ducournau fills the film with intimate shots of neuroses designed to make your skill crawl: Justine scratching viciously at her growing rash, chewing on her hair to the point of vomiting a hairball, biting her fingernails down to the bed. Between a gnawing soundtrack and a color scheme that alternate between cool blues and warm reds, it’s as though the film is a study in tension, designed to emulate hunger.

All this, of course, is nothing compared to the scenes of Justine eating raw chicken or sucking on her sister’s severed finger. Or that scene in the morgue where Justine imitates a starving animal and tries to eat a cadaver.

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The Questions

The trauma of watching Justine suck on her sister’s severed finger is nothing compared to the disturbing psychological questions RAW raises. Justine’s casual attitude toward her newfound diet puts morality itself into question. Is cannibalism inherently immoral? Is morality merely a social construct? We learn in the film that Justine’s older sister, Alexia (Rumpf), is also a cannibal, although when or how is never explained.

While Alexia kills to satisfy her hunger, Justine chooses to feed on others in a non-lethal way (biting off non-essential bits). Is Justine’s cannibalism more virtuous than Alexia’s? The muted reactions of her roommate and classmates as she begins to act on her desires also raises many questions. Is morality simply a theoretical exercise that becomes irrelevant when challenged by actuality? How often do we hold certain principles only to abandon them once someone we know violates those beliefs?

Like the best of them, RAW refuses to answer any of these questions.

horror film raw
Garance Marillier is fearless in her portrayal of Justine, a young woman who develops a taste for human flesh.

The Message

Critics have touted RAW as a feminist parable that sees cannibalism as a symbol of sexual maturity and adulthood. After all, Justine’s cannibalism coincides with her sexual awakening and her budding independence. Truthfully, I don’t see it. Justine may have entered the film as a meek and malleable girl, but she didn’t exactly exit a cool and confident woman.

Sure, she lost her virginity, gets half a Brazilian, and seems more focused on herself, but are those the hallmarks of a mature and self-possessed woman? Does sex demarcate adolescence from adulthood? Justine before her cannibalism may have been awkward and timid, but she seemed passionate about her studies and held strong convictions. Sex is important, sex is great, but having sex does not make you sexually liberated or self-assured.

I’m not completely dismissing this feminist perspective entirely. In one pivotal scene, Justine climaxes after biting her own arm during sex with her roommate. So I could believe that cannibalism is meant to represent deviant desires. That seems reasonable. If she had accepted or confronted her cannibalism at the end, I could be convinced that Justine’s journey is one of celebrating self-expression. That’s the thing though, she doesn’t. She never fully embraces her urges nor outwardly owns her decisions. Her cannibalism seems to control her, not the other way around.

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The Verdict

It’s unclear what Ducournau wanted to say with RAW. Maybe RAW is a feminist bildungsroman. Maybe RAW is a love letter to New French Extremity. An ode to David Cronenberg. An experiment in sensationalism, an exploration of sexuality, bestiality, and corporeal violence.

Or maybe RAW is nothing at all. It’s folly to confine cinema to reason. Like all art, film is a form of expression. At the risk of sounding exceptionally pretentious, intention shouldn’t be required of an artist. To expect so would be a detriment.

What is clear is that, in the hands of a deft director, even a film like RAW can be a compelling and captivating triumph.

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