A hugely popular sub-genre amongst cult film fans in the late 70s and early 80s, the cannibal movie has come a long way since the natives-munch-the-tourists excesses of both Cannibals Holocaust and Ferox. Whilst Eli Roth has been flying the flag for this notorious take on the genre with his recent The Green Inferno, Raw takes a decidedly more thought-provoking approach, albeit no less unsubtle. Owing more of a debt to We Are What We Are and underrated early noughties treasure Ginger Snaps than the tropical torments of yesteryear, Julia Ducournau’s debut feature may well be one of the best films of 2017.

After a mysteriously unsettling pre-credit scene we are introduced to Justine, a vegetarian about to begin several years at veterinary school. Her parents are both vets and strict vegetarians and her sister is currently a year in to the same course Justine is about to embark upon. As part of a hazing ritual she is force-fed meat and soon after, begins to find that Quorn just won’t cut it any more. In fact, chicken and beef won’t either.

As Justine’s behaviour grows more bizarre and her insatiable appetite intensifies, it becomes clear that this is more than the usual cannibal fare. There are scenes in Raw about as stomach churning as anything from the genre’s heyday, only here the predominant victims aren’t western documentarians or well-meaning missionaries falling foul to primitive carnivores. Justine is herself essentially both antagonist and victim; her plight as uncontrollable as her transformation from wallflower to finger-chewer.

Thematically there’s nothing in Raw which will be unfamiliar but the assuredness with which it’s executed sets the film apart. Early scenes see Ducournau take something as tired as college initiation – played out across several genres and decades – and turn it into something genuinely sinister. Indeed this isn’t a madcap college full of lifelong bonding and zany rights-of-passage. From our first glimpse of the school it is sterile, cold and nobody seems to have Justine’s back. The hazing scenes are unpleasant and hellish. Justine shuffles timidly around halls being ordered to look at the ground by sophomores; more Shawshank than Ridgemont High.

Similarly, sexual awakenings in cinema are hardly untapped territory but hitched to the back of the cannibalism theme, the concept suddenly feels fresh again – dangerous even. Real life coming-of-age doesn’t include narrators and Simple Minds songs – it can be painful, embarrassing and unpleasantly surprising. The actual soundtrack by Jim Williams (frequent composer for Ben Wheatley) is perfect; mellow and serene tracks blend with extravagant, gothic, organ-led ones to chilling effect. Indeed of all of the key players, it’s Ducournau and Williams whom you’ll be eager to see (and hear) more of as the credits roll, hopefully in another collaboration.

Stories were rife last year that viewers at the Toronto film festival passed out during some of Raw’s more graphic scenes. True or not, it’s certainly plausible. Visually impressive and extremely explicit, the film contains an evocative slew of imagery likely to burrow its way into your brain and stay there. Grotesque clinical scenes and wall-to-wall body horror are par for the course here, but never gratuitous. What’s interesting is how many of the non-horror scenes are the most shocking. For every scene of flesh-consumption there’s one of dog dissection. For every glimpse of gore there’s an eyeball being sensually licked.

In fact the latter is as incidental a moment as it is nauseating, appearing briefly in the middle of a kinetic, nightmarish party scene. It does however, beg some of the film’s key questions; Is this decadent, at times repugnant behaviour of the students any worse than that of Justine? Is the sophomore’s humiliating treatment of the freshmen any more morally questionable than some of Justine’s later actions? If college goers can use their student status as an excuse to abandon civility, why not go the whole hog?

Horror fans have been spoiled these last few years; France alone has produced some of the best of the last two decades and Raw can sit proudly alongside intellectual fright-flicks such as Martyrs and Frontier(s), not to mention modern western gems like It Follows or The VVitch. As with these recent benchmarks it’s a film which sidesteps the standard genre tropes and aims for something deeper, darker and more resonant, daring you to suggest horror is any less legit than its counterparts. If – from its eerie opening shot to its revelatory, macabre denouement – it burns some deeply unsettling imagery into your cortex along the way, all the better.

Alan King
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