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Film review: 'Raw'

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The exceptionally assured feature debut of French writer-director Julia Ducournau, "Raw" is a deeply unnerving coming-of-age story and must-see viewing for iron-stomached horror fans.

The film follows 16-year-old Justine (Garance Marillier), a strict vegetarian with a deep and abiding love of animals, who is on her way to her first year of veterinary school. Sweet-natured but slightly awkward, Justine immediately has trouble fitting in with her fellow students as they revel in the debaucherous atmosphere that marks most adolescent's first collective taste of freedom. It's a new world Justine finds herself spectacularly ill-equipped to handle.

Justine's older sister, Alexia (Ella Rumpf), is also enrolled at the institute, and is one of the upperclassmen who delight in tormenting the incoming freshmen with sadistic hazing rituals involving sleep deprivation or dousing them in buckets of pig's blood. (I have no idea what kind of research Ducournau did before writing the script, but French veterinarians seem a little high strung.) One crucial rite of passage requires ingesting a raw rabbit kidney, and Justine adamantly refuses to take part until Alexia forces her hand. That experience has an unintended effect, however, awakening in the young girl a craving for raw meat which eventually blossoms into an insatiable hunger for human flesh.

While rendered in grisly, lurid detail, the blossoming cannibalism depicted in "Raw" is an obvious allegory for collegiate self-discovery; of indulging too much and losing control. Ducournau makes a strong point about how there's no winning for women: either they're criticized for being too prudish about giving into their carnal desires or they're vilified for wanting it too much. And the film has plenty more on its mind, touching on issues of sexuality, identity, sibling rivalry, and misogyny. These themes aren't always fully developed, but they add up to a captivating whole.

Marillier is wonderful, evolving from naive child to ravenous predator; we're fearful for Justine until it becomes apparent her fellow students should probably be more afraid of her. She nurses an attraction for her gay roommate Adrien (RabahNaitOufella), and as she watches a shirtless Adrien play soccer on the quad, we can't entirely tell whether she wants to sleep with him or take a bite out of him.

"Raw" has its share of cringe-inducing, gross-out moments (Cronenbergian body horror abounds), and the film made headlines during its film festival rounds after several audience members supposedly fainted when faced with some of the films more intense moments of bodily desecration. This side of the film's hype is perhaps a bit overblown: there's nothing here any experienced horror fan can't handle. The intense atmosphere is raised even higher by Jim Williams' score, which veers between mellow violin and piano, before kicking things up a notch with bursts of gothic organ.

Suspenseful, visually exciting, and occasionally nauseating, "Raw" makes me excited to see where Julia Ducournau goes next. With her first feature, she makes the kind of indelible debut that leaves one hungry for more.

Check back on Friday for additional film coverage, including a review of the heist comedy "Going in Style."

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