‘Raw’ a blood-soaked tale of collegiate cannibalism

The last time I had a barf bag handed to me in a movie theater was for a University of Washington screening of George Romero’s “Martin,” probably in 1979.

I didn’t use it, but I appreciated the publicity gimmick.

This kind of ploy has an old tradition; when a few audience members fainted at screenings of “Frankenstein” in 1931, Universal Pictures sent ambulances to stand by outside theaters to collect the ailing and garner press interest.

John Waters used to like to say, “If someone vomits watching one of my films, it’s like getting a standing ovation,” a line that says as much about Waters as a canny marketer as it does about his status as a subversive moviemaker and shock-value specialist. Waters knew that one report of viewers becoming physically sick at a movie would ratchet up interest for the subset audience that seeks out the edgiest thing.

The gimmick still works, as the pre-release chatter around “Raw” demonstrates. Viewers at film festivals rushed to the restrooms in mid-screening, and suddenly this blood-soaked tale of collegiate cannibalism became a must-see.

Sure enough, when the movie opened in Los Angeles last week, the Nuart Theater handed out air-sickness bags to attendees. A charming touch, but it somewhat overshadows the film itself, which is quite serious in its ambitions.

“Raw” is the feature debut for writer-director Julia Ducournau, a 35-year-old French filmmaker. Her heroine is Justine (the suitably poker-faced Garance Marillier), a drab vegetarian beginning her first year in veterinary studies; coincidentally, Justine’s older sister Alexia (Ella Rumpf) is an upperclassman.

Now I don’t know much about veterinary college, but this one seems unusual: Its enrollees stay at party-hearty dorms and undergo hazing rituals that look like outtakes from “Carrie.” (Having access to pig blood is a perk of veterinary school.) Part of the hazing is forcing newbies to eat rabbit kidneys.

One would assume this is a prized delicacy in France, but for Justine, it’s torture. Worse, something changes in her appetite after this upsetting incident, and she develops a taste for human flesh.

The sequences that outline Justine’s descent into cannibalism are skillful at mashing boilerplate coming-of-age material with horror, walking that fine line between growing up and throwing up. For instance, Justine, a virgin (they always are in movies like this), predictably yearns for her new gay, male roommate (Rabah Nait Oufella); that trope usually ends badly, but especially so here.

“Raw” also makes relevant reference to bulimia and cutting, with concern about appearance a key topic — nowhere more so than in a sequence in which actual cannibalism is made to seem less traumatic than undergoing a Brazilian wax.

There’s a long line of movies in which the anxieties of youth are filtered through a horror lens, going back at least as far as “The Wizard of Oz,” and including, as it happens, “Martin.” Strong recent examples like “Let the Right One In” and “It Follows” demonstrate that there’s plenty of life left in the subject.

I am sure Ducournau has closely studied coming-of-age horror; there’s a great moment just after Justine makes the suspenseful decision to go ahead and start gnawing on a severed human finger where the music cue evokes one of Dario Argento’s cult slash-fests. If anything, “Raw” is almost too self-conscious about its metaphors; Ducournau is practically writing her own academic paper on “Raw” while she’s unspooling the movie.

Still, at its best, “Raw” gets past its artiness and touches on the truly uncanny. This can be grotesque, as in the scene where Justine finds out what happens when she ingests her own hair — a scene that surely triggered its share of festival walk-outs.

More truly haunting is Justine’s discovery that her skin is betraying her, breaking out in bloody rashes and peeling off in reptilian sheets. Here she experiences the private horror of the body’s rebellion, the knowledge that she isn’t in control of the closest part of herself. And that’s what a real coming-of-age horror movie is about.

“Raw” (3 stars)

A French coming-of-age horror picture with a grisly focus on cannibalism. A new enrollee at veterinary college (Garance Marillier) not only renounces her vegetarianism, she develops a taste for human flesh. The film is pretty arty, but gets to some real horror in its images and ideas. In French, with English subtitles.

Rating: R for violence, nudity

Showing: The Egyptian

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