Human cultures diverge widely on almost every subject imaginable but if there’s one thing almost all civilizations across history agree on, it’s that cannibalism is a big no-no. Indeed, the taboo on cannibalism is one of the constant, immutable factors by which we define the very concept of civilization. Our self-imposed categorical ban on eating each other, so the wisdom goes, is one of the key things that puts us above all other organisms. We do not eat our fellow human beings because we recognize ourselves as more evolved than animals, thereby placing ourselves above them and legitimizing our consumption of their meat.

To engage in cannibalism in modern society is therefore not just a criminal disruption of social order, it’s a profound violation of the very structures on which we base our identity as both a society and a species. The instinctive revulsion we feel at the very thought of eating another person’s flesh is as much a built-in mechanism of social self-preservation as it is a mark of basic empathy. This is what lies at the heart of cannibalism-themed horror films’ transgressive appeal: To see that taboo get explicitly flouted is to test the strength of our connective social tissue and the limits of our empathy for both the predator and their prey.

Julia Ducournau’s feature-length début Raw, whose screening at the Gothenburg Film Festival supposedly triggered vomiting and fainting spells among attendees, not only understands these core truths but uses them as the very foundation for its premise. Through the story of 18 year-old veterinary student Justine (Garance Marillier) and the dormant cannibal impulses she develops after forcibly ingesting a rabbit kidney during a hazing ritual, Ducournau expands upon conventional coming-of-age tropes to single out the broader social dynamics from which they derive.

Much like Claire Denis’s 2001 sensation Trouble Every Day, Raw portrays cannibalism as a manifestation of repressed sexual desire, a connection made all the more explicit by the coming-of-age narrative framing it. Thankfully, Ducournau circumvents the trite pathologization of female sexuality inherent to such premises by directly linking her protagonist’s condition to her social otherness: Justine is both a vegetarian and a virgin, two big Vs that invite suspicion and defensive annoyance in our patriarchal consumerist society. Her forcible induction in a college milieu that demands uniformity is paralleled by her attempts to get closer to her resentful older sister Alexia (Ella Rumpf); this is where Ducournau’s screenplay demonstrates the most insight, as Justine’s gradual transition from vegetarian to cannibal directly result from her sister’s efforts to enforce social norms on her.

Indeed, as subsequent developments make clear, the college’s dehumanizing environment (of which the hazing cult of senior students is but the most obvious face) as well as the casual exploitation of animal bodies entailed by the field of study, simultaneously encourage and repress Justine’s cannibalism but are not the cause of it. Rather, they create a context in which group mentality reproduces and amplifies systems of domination without the shackles of societal structures, forcing non-complying identities like her own to either adapt or respond in kind. As if to clarify that statement, Ducournau draws a risky indirect parallel between Justine’s newfound appetite and the voracious sex life of her gay roommate Adrien (Rabah Nait Oufella), who, as a virile man, benefits from the uninhibitedly sexual environment as it gives him the chance to finally be himself after spending most of his life in the closet. Their paths’ convergence, perhaps best illustrated by a memorable scene in which a creepy trucker (Bouli Lanners) makes unsolicited advances towards Adrien as Justine eats her first meat kebab, eventually comes to a climax whose outcome, while instrumental in reinforcing the film’s feminist themes, cannot help but feel more mandatory than tragic, as if Ducournau had ultimately decided to fall back on dramatic guidelines instead of pushing the clash of her characters’ desires to its fullest extent.

Thankfully, this lapse of narrative ambition is significantly redeemed by the vividness with which Ducournau conveys the significance of Justine’s transformation and its ramifications on her personal relationships. As befits a film where human bodies are engaged in a constant struggle for dominance, ownership or liberation, her camera follows Garance Marillier’s body with great care and dexterity, often in long human-level medium shots that invite empathy and turn every stoop, flexion and touch into documented evidence of a rebirth-in-progress. Viewers will notice an unusual amount of shots centered on her crotch, particularly in scenes where her body is undergoing changes or in moments where she is in extreme danger. Far from being exploitative or titillating, these shots humanize Justine by directly confronting the audience with the true depth and significance of her pain.

Similarly, despite their infrequency, the film’s gory moments are charged with heavy emotional value and psycho-social connotations that make their impact more lasting than almost anything ever produced under the New French Extremity banner. Like a good family meal, every bite brings the characters closer to each other – and to ourselves; whether it’s a peeing contest between sisters, a pity sex scene taking a violent turn or a playground fight that ends with both parties biting each other’s hands in a bloody embrace, every moment of shock or horror comes from a place of love, and that is exactly what makes them so disturbing and meaningful.

The carnal rapport Ducournau creates between her characters and her audience is reinforced by an expressionist-influenced atmosphere in which actors’ bodies evolve in quasi-autonomy from concrete geographical space. Very little takes place outside the enclosure of classrooms and dorm rooms, and the most defined setting is the general vicinity of the campus itself – a cold block of granite towers with oppressive grey structures and bare exteriors, reminiscent in low-angle shots of a Caligarist mental prison. Appropriately, the story has an elliptic structure that occasionally feels like a dream, where banal classroom discussions give way to awakenings in orgies of humiliation and violence that are not always followed up. The plot is guided less by a logical sequence of events than by the progress of the characters’ emotions. This approach occasionally betrays a certain limitation in visual grammar on Ducournau’s part, particularly in moments of loosened tension where Justine is just trying to navigate everyday college life, but the strength and pertinence of the scenes that immediately follow them compensate admirably. In that domain, she benefits greatly from the assistance of composer Jim Williams, whose stringent synthetic strings and pianos recall the band Goblin’s collaborations with Dario Argento.

Like a Cronenbergian reimagining of Catherine Breillat’s Fat Girl, Raw intelligently transcends college tropes and gendered horror codes to deliver a cruelly astute dissection of the crushing social pressure to conform and its effects on womanhood, sisterhood and personal identity. More than for the shock and nausea induced by its subject matter, it deserves to be talked about for its pitch-black humour, empathetic performances and, perhaps most instantly memorable of all, a darkly comical final shot that simultaneously confirms and challenges every ideological assumption made about its message.

Dir: Julia Ducournau

Scr: Julia Ducournau

Cast: Garance Marillier, Ella Rumpf, Rabah Nait Oufella, Laurent Lucas, Joana Preiss, Bouli Lanners, Marion Vernoux, Jean-Louis Sbille

Prd: Jean Des Forêts, Julie Gayet, Jean-Yves Roubin, Nadia Turincev, Cassandre Warnauts, Amélie Jacquis, Antoun Sehnaoui, Philippe LogieThomas Jaubert

DOP: Ruben Impens

Editing: Jean-Christophe Bouzy

Music: Jim Williams

Country: France

Year: 2017

Running time: 99 min