Raw, the debut film by French director Julia Ducournau, arrives braised in the kind of controversy horror movie publicists dream about.

Within the space of a few months, this darkly comedic coming-of-age surrealist feminist cannibal art piece (no, seriously) has become something of a legend, and stories of its fraught premiere – audiences members fainted, ambulances had to be called – have transformed what would otherwise be considered a niche oddity into a kind of mettle-testing rite of passage.

That said, the surprise of the film is not its extremity – though it did certainly cause its fair share of agonised squirming at the screening this critic attended, not to mention some indelicately suppressed gasps – but its sheer brilliance. Simply put, Raw is the finest horror debut since The Evil Dead, and quite possibly the most ingenious film to be released in this country for the last decade.

An exploration of the sexual awakening and empowerment of a young vet student named Justine (Garance Marillier), Raw’s power lies in its blending of nuanced character study and full-on body horror. The minor gross-out set pieces of the film’s first half – scenes featuring everything from a ketamine-drugged horse to more cow anuses than one would perhaps expect – expertly rhyme with the unrelenting brutality of its blood-drenched latter section, and such is Ducournau’s screenwriting skill that the aggressive jumps in tone feel satisfyingly abrupt rather than jarring.

Indeed, although Marillier’s performance is masterful – her transition from virginal waif to vampy deviant is somehow both subtle and gloriously melodramatic – Ducournau is the star of the show here. By precisely establishing her world and her characters, the writer/director allows Raw’s themes to trickle out like so much bad blood, and though it touches on everything from familial secrets, to the divide between the body and the mind, and the toxicity of masculine culture, the film never does so in a way that feels excessive or academic.

It all leads up to a taboo-shattering conclusion, a punchline with a stench so bad it will make the unprepared gag. But even in its brutal finale, the film shows off its renegade sense of humour, and Ducournau’s empathy for her lead stops Raw from becoming a mere exercise in cruelty or bad taste.

There is nothing else to do now but recommend this film in the strongest possible terms. See Raw. Just make sure you have a bite to eat after, not before.

Raw opens in cinemas on Thursday April 20.

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