If you can’t trust your vet, who can you trust?
French writer-director Julia Ducournau’s debut feature, “Raw,” might be the first film to demonize animal doctors. But there’s a lot more originality to it than that. Too much, maybe.
Like many ambitious first films, “Raw” tries to put too many ingredients into the pot — especially in the second half. When Ducournau keeps the viewer off balance and doesn’t lose her own, she shows signs of being an outstanding stylist and storyteller, balancing mood, composition, startling images, slow-burning suspense, and sardonic humor.
She opens the film with a disturbing, unexplained sequence: someone leaps from the side of the road into the path of a car, causing it to crash. Cut to a meek 16-year-old with the Sadean name of Justine (Garance Marillier) arriving for her first year at a sprawling, brutalist veterinary school. The first night her room is invaded by a ski-masked mob in dirty lab coats who toss the furniture out the window and force all the “rookies” to crawl on their knees to the first of many suffocating, strobe-lit debaucheries. It is “Goat” (2016) by way of “Salo” (1975).
This week of hazing climaxes in a blasphemous communion in which Justine refuses to eat a disgusting item. Her sister Alexia (Ella Rumpf), also a student at the school, talks her into it. The next morning Justine awakes with a bad rash and some troubling, insistent new appetites, and the film becomes a nightmare allegory of the return of the repressed, and then some.
Ducournau has some brilliant set pieces to come. A couple, one painted blue, the other yellow, make love, forming green until an abrupt interruption. And in one of the most disturbing horror scenes so far this year, we learn that a human finger tastes like curry.
But then Ducournau throws in subtexts of patriarchal tyranny, elitism, vengeful mediocrity, colonial exploitation, homophobia, eating disorders, incest, sibling rivalry, and vegetarianism. Plus, a handsome array of allusions to such directors as David Cronenberg, Alfred Hitchcock, and Brian De Palma, But we never get much closer to answering the key question — what’s eating Justine?
Written and directed by Julia Ducournau. Starring Garance Marillier, Ella Rumpf, Rabah Naït Oufella, Joana Preiss, Laurent Lucas. At Kendall Square. 98 minutes. R (aberrant behavior, bloody and grisly images, strong sexuality, nudity, language, and drug use). In French, with subtitles.
Peter Keough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.