'Raw' ('Grave'): Cannes Review

Cannes Critics' Week
Pass the steak tartare.

Julia Ducournau’s flesh-eating French thriller premiered in the Cannes Critics' Week.

Everyone but vegetarians will feast their eyes on Raw (Grave), a cleverly written, impressively made and incredibly gory tale of one young woman's awakening to the pleasures of the flesh — in all senses of the term. Marking the feature debut of French director Julia Ducournau, who leads a terrific young cast into a maelstrom of blood, guts and unfettered sexual awakening, this Cannes Critics' Week selection should become a hot potato (or is that a meatball?) at the market while propelling its talented creator into the spotlight.

Picture Cannibal Holocaust as an emotionally driven coming-of-age movie set within a Gallic veterinarian college, and you'll get an idea of what Ducournau (who also wrote the script) has come up with here. But while such concepts are often easier to imagine than to make, the assured storytelling and direction, including some of the goriest makeup effects this side of Rob Zombie, turn Raw into the kind of crossover film that takes the horror genre into another domain.

Following in the footsteps of her parents (Joanna Preiss, Laurent Lucas) and older sister, Alexia (Ella Rumpf), the shy, bright-eyed Justine (Garance Marillier) shows up for her first year of vet school at a place that looks more like a set piece for The Hunger Games than an actual medical institution. Indeed, before she can even unpack her bags and get acquainted with her thuggish gay roommate (Rabah Nait Oufella), Justine is forced into a vicious hazing process by the older students, who ridicule and insult the freshmen while forcing them to party hearty on the first night.

In the middle of the drunken bacchanal, Justine reunites with Alexia, a fiery brunette who only half helps her younger sister to learn the ropes — which include getting bathed in animal blood and eating raw liver upon request (perhaps Leonardo DiCaprio should enroll there). The problem is that, like the rest of her family, Justine is a devout vegetarian, so making it out of freshman hell will mean she has to start doing the impossible — or rather the inedible — and become a carnivore herself.

The catch, of course, is that Justine likes it. In fact, she likes it so much that her appetite for uncooked meat begins to take hold of the young woman — who, we eventually learn, is also a virgin — in some highly unsavory ways, driving her to commit acts of increasing savagery that will cause the film's ketchup-count to reach exponential numbers.

There are more surprises to be found in Ducournau's well-paced and perceptive screenplay, which pays homage to classics like Carrie and Night of the Living Dead as it transforms Justine's unquenched sexual urges into an appetite for flesh, whether animal or human. But the real interest of Raw is how the director handles the sticky relationship between Justine and her elder sis — a relationship complicated by a major plot twist in the second act that gives new meaning to the name Scissor Sisters.

It's rare to see such confidence in a first feature, yet Ducournau seems to know where she's going at all times, keeping the narrative lean and mean while utilizing an array of stylistic techniques — slow-motion, sequence shots and tons of onscreen prosthetics — that never let up until the witty, and inevitably grisly, final scene. Previous foreign movies, including Claire Denis' Trouble Every Day and Jorge Michel Grau's We Are What We Are, have attempted similar feats by combining B-grade genre tropes like cannibalism with more upscale filmmaking, though Raw both does that and adds a welcome layer of Hollywood-style polish straight out of Craven or Carpenter.

Performances from relative newcomers Marillier and Rumpf are captivating and imposingly physical, especially during what may be the most painful sequence of feminine hygiene education ever shot, as well as a sisterly catfight of a rare and disturbing brutality. Tech credits are top-notch throughout a sharply edited 98 minutes, with much kudos due to French FX maestro Olivier Afonso (Inside), who makes all the gore look so realistic you can practically taste it.

Production companies: Petit Film, Rouge International
Cast: Garance Marillier, Ella Rumpf, Rabah Nait Oufella, Joana Preiss, Laurent Lucas, Bouli Lanners
Director-screenwriter: Julia Ducournau
Producers: Jean des Forets, Julie Gayet, Nadia Turincev
Director of photography: Ruben Impens
Production designer: Laurie Colson
Costume designer: Elise Ancion
Editor: Jean-Christophe Bouzy
Composer: Jim Williams
Special effects makeup: Olivier Afonso
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Critics' Week)
Sales agent: Wild Bunch

In French

98 minutes

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