Hannibal Lecter may have selected appropriate wine matches for his meat, but the cannibalism on display in French freshman writer-director Julia Ducournau’s succulent “Raw” is more opportunistic — the equivalent, say, of being able to handily throw together a meal from whoever is lying around. Premiering in Cannes Critics’ Week — where jurors will have had to sit up and take note, if not reach for the barf bag, “Raw” is a deliciously fevered stew of nightmare fuel that hangs together with a breezily confident sense of superior craft. Genre-led distribs will be slavering for a taste, while crossover to a slightly more mainstream crowd may be possible, provided they have strong stomachs.
The central narrative in “Raw” opens with an amuse-bouche of a scene, functioning as something of a tease for the banquet to come. Strict vegetarian Justine (Garance Marillier) orders plain mashed potato in a canteen, but when she chows down, she’s disconcerted to find a chunk of sausage in her mash. Her parents are even more outraged, determined to preserve her herbivorous purity. It’s not really a spoiler to reveal that her imminent ascent up the food chain will involve more adventurous hors d’oeuvres.
The vast majority of the action takes place over Justine’s first week at the veterinary college that is her parents’ alma mater, and also where her older sister Alexia (Ella Rumpf) is already studying. This location is key to what follows: Like the dance academy in Dario Argento’s “Suspiria” (or the school in 2014’s Critics’ Week triumph “The Tribe”), the college appears to be a placeless, hermetically sealed environment permeated with heightened emotion; a kind of twisted dream-logic dominates and permits events to get suitably out of hand.
Marillier initially does a superb job of projecting the ingenue. Doe-eyed, chin up, and a natural valedictorian type, she’s ready to throw herself into her studies. Her bewilderment throughout disorienting compulsory mass hazing rituals (including a group version of the crucial pig’s blood scene from “Carrie”) is palpable: At this point audiences will fear for her safety. They will come to learn that she can take care of herself, as Marillier traces a beautifully modulated arc into more feral territory, whereby her very face shape seems to subtly change, becoming more pointed, her fashionably heavy eyebrows hawkish rather than neglected, her bearing predatory. Her name, suggesting De Sade’s corrupted heroine Justine, is not an accident.
In a kind of devilish performance duet, she’s ably matched by a punky live-wire turn from Rumpf, who channels an unholy blend of Béatrice Dalle in “Betty Blue” and Fairuza Balk’s signature 1990s role in “The Craft.” Their sororal dynamic is important, but make no mistake: It’s not always a benign bond. As in sisterly werewolf flick “Ginger Snaps,” female sexuality and sibling rivalry are very much to the fore and drenched in gore.
Speaking of gore, kudos are due to the makeup, effects and prosthetics teams. Often so realistic that they are hard to look at, scenes that viewers of a sensitive nature may find disturbing see lacerated extremities, bite marks and gaping wounds perfectly walk the line between the visceral fun of practical effects and overt attention-grabbing. The effects are simply here to be believed.
Still, the film’s most exciting element remains its writer-director. It’s not that Ducournau’s first feature is totally without flaws — any road bumps are mainly narrative and structural in nature — but that the authorial voice that emerges is so instantly complete and confident. She has original ideas to spare and the capacity to judiciously magpie from existing work, without tipping over into slavish homage.
The film’s soundscape may be familiar to fans of U.K. helmer Ben Wheatley, as his regular composer Jim Williams is responsible for the score. Williams essays a similar approach to that taken in Wheatley’s killer road-trip comedy “Sightseers,” with folksy lighter numbers giving way to heavier, more psychedelic freak-out tracks as the characters degenerate into madness. It’s a tactic that works very well, particularly in tandem with the more expected but still well-curated diegetic music blasting out of the students’ sound systems.
“Raw” is realized to a high standard that should break it out beyond specialist distributors and exhibitors, and genre fests that can get in there before release should book it and watch audiences delight in its stylish sense of body horror. Only a handful of foreign-language films without marquee names cross over to cult success in English-speaking territories each year. This deserves to be one of the handful, and will be aided by its genre: Good horror doesn’t need established stars. Remake rights may well prove part of a “Raw” deal, though there’s a spell to the film that could be broken by attempting to cast it a second time.