It’s fitting that “Raw” begins with a car crash since it, too, is sometimes sickening to watch but impossible to look away from, and you’ll be telling people about it long after you saw it.
The feature debut by French writer-director Julia Ducournau, “Raw” is a singular coming-of-age story about Justine (Garance Marillier), a virginal vegetarian veterinary student just starting at the school where her sister, Alex (Ella Rumpf), is a year ahead of her. (Their parents went here, too, back in the day.) Justine and Alex’s relationship is rocky in the way that teenage sisters’ relationships often are, and they butt heads when, during the extensive hazing process that seems to occupy the bulk of the first semester (are all veterinary colleges like this, or just French ones?), all the first-years are required to eat a tiny bit of meat. Alex tells Justine to just do it. Yes, their parents raised them as vegetarians, but so what? Alex had to go through the same thing when she got hazed. It’s no big deal.
Justine eats the meat and has a series of highly unsettling physical reactions, portrayed with nauseating, almost comical realism. (This isn’t an expensive or effects-heavy film, but Ducournau and her technicians make it count when it matters.) Justine also finds, however, that she has a taste for flesh — not meat, flesh. This coincides with her sexual awakening — she has a hot but unfortunately gay roommate, Adrien (Rabah Nait Oufella) — and she’s overwhelmed by the new desires in her mind and the changes taking place in her body. Her relationship with Alex improves as the sisters find common ground and discover, as the saying goes, that blood is thicker than water.
Ducournau blends body-horror and sexual metaphors with a matter-of-fact sense of humor, grossing us out one minute with alarmingly realistic flesh and blood, touching our hearts the next minute with sweet themes about the sacrifices we make for those we care about. (And what about that car crash…?) Think of this as the unholy offspring of John Hughes and David Cronenberg, an unforgettably morbid dramedy from a distinct new talent. Come for the hint of cannibalism; stay for the love.
B+ (1 hr., 35 min.; French with subtitles; )