Julia Ducournau may have previously made a film called Mange (meaning “eat,” for you uncultured swine), but this would be nothing compared to her true manifesto on eating, Raw. With the perfect horror backdrop, a veterinary trade school, Ducournau weaves the macabre and wraith-like test subject animals throughout the narrative of Justine’s (Garance Marillier) gruesome initiation as a “rookie” into the school. From getting blood poured on her (along with all her other classmates), Carrie-style to being told to wear club attire to all her classes, there’s no shortage of cruelly bizarre requests the upperclassmen won’t make or expect fulfilled. Justine’s roommate, Adrien (Rabah Nait Oufella), though male–she specifically requested another girl to live with–is considered “femme” enough to be assigned as her rooming companion thanks to his gayness and offers her one of the only sources of comfort as she makes the transition away from her highly oppressive parents. Indeed, her mother (Joana Preiss) and father (Laurent Lucas) are the ones who have imposed a vegetarian diet on Justine–which, turns out, to have been for good reason. Alexia (Ella Rumpf), Justine’s older sister who also goes to the school, certainly isn’t helping much in the way of comforting Justine as the new and innovative means of torture from upperclassmen persist, this time in the form of being told to eat a raw lamb kidney (yet another benefit of setting the stage at a veterinary school). When she tries to resist by declaring her vegetarianism, Alexia force feeds the depraved form of meat down her mouth.
As she walks away with Adrien, she immediately starts retching, not aware that, all too soon, she’s going to have nothing but a taste for flesh. Her initial bodily reaction, however, is breaking out into a rash. Panicked, she goes to the school nurse (Marion Vernoux)–whom Adrien wears a sweatshirt of in one of many camp details of the movie–the following day. After she supplies Justine with an ointment, she proceeds to tell her a story about a particularly fat student from a while back who was so gratified by the nurse not saying anything about her weight that she actually cried tears of joy when the exam was over. The nurse remarks that all the fat girl wanted was to be seen as average. That this inherent human need to be accepted as part of the pack was denied her so long that it made her crazy. She then asks Justine how she sees herself from the viewpoint of the other students, to which Justine replies, “Average.”
But average she is not. Not in her level of academic excellence, intact virginity, and now, definitely not in her dietary preferences. These quickly make themselves known after she goes on a raw meat eating bender and finds what she really likes is human meat–as discovered during a botched bikini wax performed by Alexia. During the process, the wax gets caught on Justine’s skin, inciting Alexia to run to get some scissors to cut it off. When she returns to the bed, where their dog, Quickie, has since sniffed casually at Justine’s vag, Justine bats the scissors away forcefully. This movement maims Alexia’s finger, shocking her enough to result in fainting. After calling the hospital, Justine can’t resist sampling a little of the blood from the detached finger. Enthralled by the taste, she devours the entire thing by the time Alexia comes to. As Justine waits in the hospital with her parents, Ducournau’s knack for details other writer-directors wouldn’t think to include showcases itself in the comedic visual of an old man smiling back at Justine by flapping his dentures in his mouth (yet another nod to the animal nature of humans and how they interact with one another).
To Justine’s surprise, Alexia doesn’t rat her out to their parents, instead blaming the consumption of her finger on Quickie. After she leaves the hospital with Justine, the film comes full-circle to the opening scene of a car accident. Spurring car wrecks, evidently, is Alexia’s means for drumming up her own cannibal-centric meals. Appalled by her method, Justine refuses to partake, suppressing her animalistic instincts and desires in a manner that is most assuredly Ducournau’s statement on a society that promotes a complete clampdown on what’s natural.
In many respects, Raw is rather like an inverse version of The Vegetarian, whose heroine starts out eating meat and subsequently becomes a strict vegetarian to the point of wanting to transform completely into a plant. The often fraught bonds of sisterhood are also similarly explored in The Vegetarian as they are in Raw. Justine and Alexia’s opposite and opposed personalities are what simultaneously repel and attract them–though their relationship suffers most over jealousies begat by Adrien, who turns out to not be as staunchly gay as originally thought. This and other petty little arguments drive Justine and Alexia to their ultimate bloody showdown. At times also channeling The Lure, another cannibal movie featuring two sister-like mermaids (and a soundtrack as boss as Raw‘s) as the human-hungry protagonists, Raw is the gory allegory of the detriments that stem from lifelong repression–which always results in giving in to far more extreme behaviors to make up for so much time spent as a puritan. And, of course, it also highlights that not only can a sister stab you in the back again and again and again, but she’ll also be the one to wash the blood off of your body in the shower even though you’ve just eaten her love interest.