No, no, not raw like that. Raw’s French title is Grave, which has multiple meanings in English depending on context: serious, deep, solemn, nuts, and, more colloquially, ‘totes’.
Writer-director Julia Ducournau’s original title paints more of an intriguing picture of what the film is actually about, such that it’s a bit disappointing it was changed to something more literal and less ambiguous.
But it’s such a striking debut feature that you can forgive a certain familiarity in its debts to giallo and other famous horror films that revolve around women’s sexuality, like Carrie, Ginger Snaps, and the recent cult hit It Follows.
In the great tradition of off-kilter environments that seem bizarrely cut off from the outside world, Raw takes place at a gloomy veterinary college in an unspecified part of France.
Justine (Garance Marillier) has been raised on a strict vegetarian diet, but while eating at a café on the way to start school she finds meat in her food.
Unbeknownst to her, this awakens in her an insatiable cannibalistic craving.
Horror is a genre that tends to give little to queer audiences, perhaps in part because filmmakers are often unwilling to juxtapose the frequently transgressive nature of horror stories with the more conventional images of queerness that tend to be present in contemporary filmmaking.
The danger of queer desire tends to be exploited in thrillers rather than horror, in films like Xavier Dolan’s Tom at the Farm or The Talented Mr. Ripley.
While Raw’s main character isn’t LGBTI, it uses a gay character in a specific and crucial way. Justine’s roommate Adrien (Rabah Naït Oufella) is gay and gorgeous.
She complains to him that she asked for a female roommate and he brushes it off, saying “a fag” is much of a muchness.
But the awakening of Justine’s desire for flesh – a clear metaphor for her sexual awakening – crosses that boundary and fuses with her desire for pleasure.
In this way, Raw tackles the sometimes tricky subject of relationships between gay men and (ostensibly) straight women in a fascinating, predatory way.
Justine devours a shirtless Adrien with her eyes as he plays soccer, and when curiosity gets the best of both of them it fractures their relationship.
Justine takes it as a sign of interest, but Adrien becomes confused and frustrated – why did he have to withstand bullying only to have him question his sexual identity now? Each character ultimately feels in some way exploited by the other.
The other chief relationship in the film is between Justine and her sister Alexia (Ella Rumpf), a rebel reminiscent of Fairuza Balk in The Craft a few years ahead of Justine at the college, which is characterised by a shadowy, aggressive culture of hazing.
Justine’s discovery of her cannibalistic leanings leads her to learn that her sister has the same affliction, and the tension this creates straddles a strange line between sororal conflict and, given the film’s larger metaphorical thrust, potentially sapphic desire.
This is where Raw struggles most. Despite being gorgeously shot – the hermetic world of the college has shades of The Shining’s Overlook Hotel – and expressively acted by Marillier, Rumpf, and Oufella, the overarching ideas behind it feel rather messy.
It’s the kind of film that promises things it seems unsure exactly how to deliver.
Yet in terms of visceral horror imagery, its realism is thoroughly effective. Reports of fainting and ambulances at festival screenings have followed the film since its prize-winning debut at Cannes last year.
So perhaps it’s not for the faint of heart, nor those who prefer their horror relatively straightforward.
It’s assured and creepy, gross and fascinating, wayward, and fundamentally a bit silly. But horror this out there is hard to come by in Australian cinemas, which makes Raw a very tasty morsel.
Raw is out in Australian cinemas on Thursday April 20. To see where the film is screening near you, click here.