Chewing on What it Means to be Human: Raw Director Julia Ducournau on Her Cannibalistic Coming of Age Movie
Accidentally seeing The Texas Chain Saw Massacre at the age of six is the perfect origin story for a horror director, the ideal confluence of childhood trauma and cinematic bloodshed.
But for Julia Ducournau, it’s the lack of trauma that stands out. (She’d also rather you not call her a horror director, but we’ll come back to that.)
“My parents brought me to a dinner party, I think,” she recalls. “Probably my older sister was sleeping at a friend’s and they didn’t find a babysitter or something. So they just put me in the bedroom with the TV, and I changed the channels. I guess the people whose house we were at must have had cable TV. The thing is, I only remembered it afterwards. Ten years later, I was a teenager, and someone told me, ‘You should watch this movie; it’s awesome.’ I watched it and I realized I had seen it before. And then I saw myself in that bedroom, watching the movie. I remembered.”
The “return of the repressed” figures heavily in Raw, the 33-year-old Ducournau’s first theatrical feature. It’s set at a French veterinary school where Justine (Garance Marillier) is following in the footsteps of her parents and her older sister, Alexia (Ella Rumpf). New students undergo a fierce and prolonged hazing process, from having their belongings repeatedly tossed out the window and into the quad, to being drenched in animal blood. By those standards, being forced to eat a raw rabbit liver doesn’t seem too bad, but Justine and her family are devout vegetarians—in the opening scene, her mother bawls out a surly rest-stop waitress who sneaks a bit of sausage into Justine’s mashed potatoes—and complying triggers a hunger in Justine she’s never known before. She slips a hamburger into her pocket in the school cafeteria, and progresses to gnawing on raw chicken breasts in the middle of the night. But it turns out none of those meats are an acceptable substitute for what Justine really craves: human flesh.
The Paris-born Ducournau went to film school at La Fémis, cut her teeth as a story editor and script consultant, then directed a short, “Junior,” which played at Cannes’ Critic Week in 2011. The next year she co-directed a feature, Mange (Eat), with Virgile Bramly, for French TV. She knew she wanted to attack a taboo in her theatrical debut, and she narrowed it down to what she considered humankind’s big three: murder, incest and cannibalism. Murder was too common, and making a movie about incest didn’t appeal to her, so that left the third, which also fit her interest in the human body and the stigmatization of behavior.
“For me, cannibalism was the biggest taboo,” she says. “Cannibals are not vampires or werewolves, they’re real people. People tend to say they’re inhuman, but that’s not true. They are very human. We say that they are inhuman because we don’t want to acknowledge them as being our equivalent. It’s too painful to face that we humans have these parts in us. I took the idea of cannibals, but [that taboo] can be applied to many, many things.”
Metaphorical readings of Justine’s awakening are inevitable, and the film courts them, to some extent. Sixteen-year-old Justine arrives at school a virgin, and the discovery of her forbidden appetites overlaps with her entering the realm of adult sexuality. Her first taste of human flesh follows a scene in which her sister attempts to give Justine her first bikini wax—an attempt that goes horribly, bloodily wrong, although not in the way you’d expect. One of the school’s hazing rituals involves covering Justine and a male student in yellow and blue paint, shutting them up in a room, and telling them not to come out until they’re both green; the forced makeout session ends with the unsuspecting fellow missing a chunk of his lower lip. But this isn’t Carrie, where a girl’s transition to womanhood makes her a monster. Justine’s dual lusts for flesh are related, but they’re not commensurate, and the risk of monstrousness lies not in feeling the desire but in giving in to it.
“It certainly talks about the birth of sexuality in a young woman,” Ducournau says, “but for me it talks more generally about growing into what it means to be human.”
Raw’s setting at a veterinary school naturally brings up the subject of animal behavior, and whether the boundary between humans and (other) animals is as clearly delineated as we like to believe. During the kind of hypothetical back-and-forth for which undergraduates are famous, Justine argues that there’s no difference between the anguish a woman suffers when she is raped and the feelings a monkey would experience under the same circumstances. Their bodies are virtually the same, so their psyches must be, as well.
Ducournau, however, isn’t cynical or glib about the connection. Justine, she explains, “says this thing that is, for me, incredibly childish. It’s something that is so in denial of her humanity and of her femininity that it’s almost heartbreaking for me to hear her say it. We are animals, but not only animals. We are animals that are moral, and who can discern a difference between right and wrong. Justine’s whole arc is like this. By becoming a so-called monster, she’s going to learn how to discern the difference between what is right and what is wrong.”
Ducournau asks to have surprises preserved for audiences who haven’t yet seen the film, so suffice it to say that Justine’s desire for a very specific kind of meat inevitably leads to a crisis of procurement, and that she discovers she is not the first to face this problem. Where most horror movies would allow their protagonist to give in to those desires and then deal with the consequences, Raw fixes on the moral dilemma: Can Justine resist her most basic desires, and if she gives into them, what will she become?
About that “horror movie” thing: Ducournau will allow that Raw is a horror movie, but insists that it is not only that. For a first-time moviemaker, she’s put a lot of thought into not just what kind of film she wanted to make, but how to put it into the world. Away from its provocative themes, there’s certainly plenty to admire about the film’s sheer technical craftsmanship, as in a couple of college party scenes where the camera (manned by Belgian DP Ruben Impens, who shot Felix van Groeningen’s Belgica and The Broken Circle Breakdown) follows Justine through the crowd in bravura extended takes.
Ducournau obtained financing for the French-Belgian co-production from ARTE and Canal+ in France, as well as various sources in Belgium (the film was shot at that country’s University of Liège). She says that low-budget moviemakers can allow themselves a single extravagance. In the case of Raw, it was adjusting the schedule to make sure the movie was completed in time for Cannes, because debuting it there would ensure that it wasn’t seen as merely a genre movie. (It’s worth noting, too, that with movies like Blue Ruin and It Follows, the festival has shown more openness to genre films in recent years.) It won the FIPRESCI prize of the International Federation of Film Critics, as well, proving that its appeal extends beyond the devoted but often insular world of horror film buffs. She may, however, run into similar issues with the next film she’s currently writing, which is about a female serial killer.
“When I watch a horror movie, I want to jump out of my seat,” Ducournau says. “That’s what I expect. The scene from [David Cronenberg’s] The Fly that I constantly talk about—for me, it’s not horror really. It is indeed body horror, but it doesn’t scare me. What it says about humanity scares me, but the movie itself does not. I find it sometimes revolting and it’s hard to watch, but I don’t have this anxiety about what’s going to happen next, which can be the case with James Wan’s movies or stuff like that.”
It’s no surprise that Ducournau is a fan of David Cronenberg, in whose movies the human body is often both victim and assailant. Like Cronenberg’s movies, Raw dwells on small details and horrifyingly precise sounds, the better to forge an almost physical connection between the movie and its viewer. At times it also recalls Chantal Akerman’s landmark Jeanne Dielman, 23 rue du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, in which we become so attuned to the rhythm of a Belgian housewife’s daily routine that the smallest deviation sends out shockwaves. When she drops a potato instead of peeling it, it’s like a bomb has gone off.
“I like body horror because it sticks to me way longer,” Ducournau says. “It makes me think a lot. It’s always, constantly, about how you show humanity, how you show death, how you show the monstrosity in relationships between people. I’m thinking about Dead Ringers, for example. It’s always a reflection about what makes us human, and that’s what I love about it. As an audience member, it makes your body active, and if your body is active then your mind is active afterwards. So in the movie you’re really living it, and that’s really what I’m looking for.”
That’s also why Ducournau preferred to use practical special effects whenever possible, although some did get a digital assist in post. “I never use CGI alone,” she explains. “I always use it just to perfect on-set special effects. On-set special effects are a bit riskier, because they’re less perfect, but I’m also sure that the audiences’ brains feel the truth in it. We see CGI everywhere—in commercials, on the internet, everywhere. We know the trick, and that doesn’t make us feel anything. It looks good, but there is nothing real about it in our head. With on-set special effects, it’s very different. It’s the opposite, actually—even if you’re not fooled completely, they talk to you in a truthful way.”
Raw was finally presented to a horror audience when it played in the Toronto International Film Festival’s Midnight Madness section, but—ironically—it was that hardened, gleefully bloodthirsty crowd for whom it was more than some could handle: Several people passed out during the screening and had to be treated by paramedics. (It may have been the scene where Justine hungrily chows down on a very real-looking human finger that did it.)
Overnight, an obscure French movie became an international sensation: The Daily Beast dubbed it “The Teen Cannibal Movie That Made Grown Men Faint.”
Every moviemaker wants an audience to react to their work. People being so engrossed in a movie that it has a physical effect on them is the ultimate compliment. But for Ducournau, the physical reaction is meant to be a provocation for post-film thought, not an end in itself, and she quickly found that the hype risked overshadowing the movie. “It’s so far from my movie that I decided to not even care anymore,” she says. “It doesn’t do justice at all to the crossover aspect of my movie. The film is being talked about like it’s a shocker or a bloodbath from A to Z. I just hope that the people will make their own opinions about it and go and see it in spite of that.”
Different viewers will have different breaking points, but for me, the most disturbing scene in Raw doesn’t involve cannibalism at all. It’s when Justine wakes up in her dorm room the morning after ingesting the rabbit liver and finds her body covered in a mottled rash. After itching and clawing at it, she ends up in the hospital, where the doctor peels off long flaps of dead skin to reveal the raw, red flesh underneath. It’s horrifying not because it’s outlandish, like the sight of a woman lapping blood from a freshly crushed skull, but because it’s so ordinary, and the context only served to heighten an entirely commonplace affliction. We may not have experienced a craving for human flesh, but we’ve all woken up with our body itching or aching in some place it didn’t before, and thought, What if this is the start of something bad?
“Body horror can be about the mundanity of a body that is confronted with its own mortality,” Ducournau says. “And by mortality, I mean that it can also feel pain, that it can have wounds, that the body can rebel against the mind and have an autonomous way of life. We tend to sexualize or venerate the bodies of young women onscreen, and that’s exactly the opposite of what I wanted to do. Through mundanity, we can really inspire empathy in any audience. When we have a rash, we all scratch at it. It comes out of the fear that our body is going to rebel, and that’s something that belongs to everyone.”
Camera: Arri Alexa Mini
Lenses: “We did not go for anamorphic lenses even if it was the most obvious choice for ’scope, because I don’t like the softness of them. I wanted a raw image (no pun intended) that showed the pores of the skin, dark rings under the eyes and drops of sweat. We opted for vintage lenses that were re-housed, which means that the old glass was put into a new housing in order to fit new cameras.”
Color Correction: Baselight
Editing System: Avid
Shooting Days: 37
Budget: Approximately 3.5 million euros
Raw opens in theaters March 10, 2017, courtesy of Focus World. Photographs by François Berthier. MM