The blood-spattered French cannibal thriller "Raw" is arriving in theaters several months after its midnight showings at the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival, where its most intense moments caused enough fainting spells to draw paramedics to the scene. Heeding these reports, I headed to a recent press screening with nervous anticipation and an emptier stomach than usual, steeling myself for what was going to be, by all accounts, a finger-lickin' good fright.
"Raw" is very much that and more — in part because it is also, in a crucial sense, less. Breathless hype, particularly when it involves mass blackouts and nausea (à la "The Exorcist" and "127 Hours"), can twist a movie's reputation in ways both apt and misleading, and to over-emphasize this one's grisliness would in some ways undersell its achievement.
The severed digits and half-chewed limbs we see may be marvels of prosthetic ingenuity, but "Raw" shreds its characters' flesh — to say nothing of the viewer's nerves — with a discretion and skill that I can describe only as exquisite. It's a total grossout, but it's also a delicacy. Julia Ducournau, making a stellar feature writing-directing debut, fosters the kind of disquieting intimacy with her characters that leaves us continually uncertain of whether we should fear them or fear for them.
The story concerns a 16-year-old girl named Justine (Garance Marillier), a strict vegetarian who, while dining out in an early scene, finds a chunk of sausage in her mashed potato. Her parents (Laurent Lucas and Joana Preiss) tense up at this sly bit of foreshadowing; it will hardly be Justine's last encounter with meat, especially when she enrolls at the veterinary school where her older sister, Alex (Ella Rumpf), is already a student.
For just a few moments, we could be watching an ordinary boarding-school drama, in which Justine, a gifted student, finds herself caught off-guard by a period of intense ritual hazing. We are plunged headlong into the thrill and confusion of her initiation, as Justine and her fellow newbies are ripped from their beds in the middle of the night and hurled into a drunken disco party. Later they will be doused with animal blood (a near-obligatory reference to "Carrie") and then each forced to ingest a rabbit's kidney.
It's this latter rite of passage that Justine balks at, but Alex, glowering with goth menace, slurps down a kidney without a second thought and urges her sister to do the same. Justine obeys and, after suppressing her gag reflex, discovers that she now has a sudden, insatiable hunger for meat — a mixture of youthful revulsion and desire that clearly invites a carnal interpretation.
Ducournau is hardly the first filmmaker to mine the body-horror lexicon for ripe pubescent metaphors, but hers may be the most audacious and controlled spin on this particular tale to emerge in some time. It's no coincidence that Justine begins craving human flesh around the same time she develops an infatuation with her studly roommate, Adrien (Rabah Naït Oufella). Adrien happens to be gay, but he's also game, in more than one sense; the fluidity and unpredictability of the human appetite is one of the movie's most playful and persistent themes.
Ducournau embraces the tenderness and the ferocity in her material (Jim Williams' score amplifies the contradictions beautifully), and she cleverly uses the veterinary setting to collapse the assumed distinctions between woman and beast. Sometimes she pulls the camera back, framing the campus and its open surroundings in ways that suggest a remote alien landscape. And sometimes she moves in for the kill, bringing us so close that we can practically smell the blood, waste and formaldehyde.
But the director never loses sight of the sisterly rapport at the heart of the movie, or the multitudinous roles that Alex plays for Justine's benefit: victim, rival, mentor, tormenter, guardian, unconditional friend. Rumpf's performance is a wicked, punky delight. And Marillier makes Justine no less formidable or volatile a figure; it's astonishing to see her earnest, innocent mien transformed, by movie's end, into a knowing, predatory smile.
The sisters' bond is the key to the movie's most squirm-inducing scene, a moment of sheer (and shear) genius that treats the female body — so often presented as an object of male desire — as a source of grotesque comedy, competitive anxiety and other thrilling secretions. I'd say more, but best not to spoil your appetite.
In French with English subtitles
Rating: R, for aberrant behavior, bloody and grisly images, strong sexuality, nudity, language and drug use/partying
Running time: 1 hour, 39 minutes
Playing: Nuart Theatre, Santa Monica