Garance Marillier in Raw (Toronto International Film Festival)

Raw opens with a young woman walking down a tree-lined country lane on a cloudy day and then cuts to a car coming from the other direction. Another shot reveals the pedestrian is nowhere to be seen, and next the sound of a car crash is heard. The woman, lying next to the road, is seen getting up and walking toward the crashed car, which is followed by the film’s title flashing on screen in bold 1980s album cover-style, along with an instrumental track reminiscent of the recent abominable film The Neon Demon. But Raw is better. So, so much better.

What writer/director Julia Ducournau has concocted is a horror film à la David Cronenberg, but from a female perspective. Justine (Garance Marillier) is beginning her studies at the veterinarian school that her parents went to and where her sister is an upperclassman. The entire family is strict vegetarian, concerned as they are about the sentience of animals. This veterinarian school is something, a strange mash-up between Animal House and Lord of the Flies, where the freshman are hazed mercilessly and hedonistically. The first night, all their possessions are tossed out the window, and they are herded to the basement of the dormitory to encounter the horrors of…the rave.

Anyhow, part of the hazing ritual involves eating raw rabbit kidney, which presents a problem for Justine, a super smart rule follower who has never eaten meat in her life. She turns for help from her sister, Alexia (Ella Rumpf), the rebellious one, who tells her to lighten up and don’t be a pussy. She ate the liver when she had to. So Justine does so, which ultimately leads to problems, to say the least.

I mentioned Cronenberg earlier, and I have to say, there hasn’t been a filmmaker since who seems so in tune with the oogier aspects of human existence. There is a three-minute montage of Justine scratching away at rashes that is a master class in producing discomfort for the audience. (The sound of her nails digging into her skin is cringeworthy and goes on and on with no letup.) There is another sequence that will make you never want to have a Brazilian wax again, and if you’re a dude, you will never, ever ask your woman to. Oh, and someone coughs up a hairball. The movie’s fantastically disgusting and uncomfortable.

Ducournau is extremely clever at keeping you on your toes. At some points, you think you are simply watching a French coming-of-age comedy, and then you are unpleasantly and brutally reminded that this is not so. Scenes that would not be out of place in a David Lynch film are suddenly followed with a raunchy sex scene or some George Romero–like chomping. You truly don’t know what is going to come next.

But Ducournau keeps Justine close. This is her story. For all of its cleverness, this movie is about human beings, particularly young ones and their desires, both healthy and otherwise. It is also a meditation on sisterhood and family. This is probably its most poignant of aspect, as Justine and Alexia alternately despise and love, attack and defend, and in the end, simply accept each other.

Raw is a powerhouse of a film, and Julia Ducournau, in her feature debut, is a director completely in control of her craft and a talent to watch.

Written and Directed by Julia Ducournau
Released by Focus World
French with English subtitles
France/Belgium. 98 min. Rated R
With Garance Marillier, Ella Rumpf, Rabah Naït Oufella, Joanna Preiss, Laurent Lucas, and Bouli Lanners