Director Julia Ducournau tells us why it's time to honor the female appetite—in all its most gruesome forms—on film.
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Rightly or wrongly, cannibalism is just one of those things—like genetic sexual attraction—that attracts its fair share of controversy. But what if there was a way to safely and responsibly practice cannibalism without having to, you know, murder people?
This is the dilemma at the heart of upcoming French feminist cannibal horror Raw, but let's not get hung up on the ethics of murdering people and eating their flesh. This isn't a high school philosophy class. Raw is so much darker than that.
Justine, played by newcomer Garance Marillier in her feature-length debut, is a vet student from a family of vegetarian veterinarians (her parents, and her older sister Alexia, also attended the same school). As part of a freshman hazing ritual, Justine is forced to eat a rabbit kidney—and this awakens within her a primal lust for animal, and then human, flesh.
Cannibalism aside, Raw is a coming-of-age film grounded in the fucked up but entirely believable relationship between two sisters. Alexia is the glittering-eyed, amoral big sister from hell: Justine is the young ingénue who chafes against her dominance. They fight, share clothes, fall out, but a fierce love bonds them together against everyone else—in other words, they behave like sisters across the world.
Fittingly for a film about the human body, Justine is all limbs, bones, and huge eyes, and Marillier brings an unaffected physical vulnerability to the role. In one scene a shivering Justine contorts herself under her bed covers, newly awakened to her insatiable blood lust. You get the sense of a young girl being painfully consumed from within in an awful reverse pregnancy—itself a staple trope of horror films.
Ahead of a special screening tonight at London's British Film Institute, hosted by Broadly, we caught up with Raw's prodigiously young, prodigiously talented screenwriter and director, Julia Ducournau.
BROADLY: Hi Julia, thanks for talking with us. I think the main thing I took away from Raw was that this is a film about female appetite, in all its forms. Was that what you were trying to communicate?
Julia Ducournau: It's about appetite in general. About feeling ashamed and like you don't fit, but overcoming that feeling as well. I wanted to portray a female sexuality in the film that is not archetypal. I'm really sick of the depiction of female sexuality in films. I wanted to show a depiction of female sexuality that was strong, about fulfilling your needs and your desires.
After watching Raw I researched female cannibals throughout history and what I found was that they're often tied into wider fears about beautiful women not being what they seem—like the sirens of ancient Greek myth. Did you want to tap into male fears about woman's destructive power in an allegorical way?
Yes, so also there were the Pre-Raphaelites who painted the nymphs who used their charm to drag sailors into the water and kill them. The important thing to remember is women have, since the beginning of time, been seen as prey or victims because they're allegedly physically weaker. If women aren't victims, they're a threat—so the second aspect of woman is monstrous. I wanted people to understand Justine and fear her and fear for her so they can relate to her, in both ways.
It's a dark film, but I love the unexpected humor—one scene where a bikini wax goes wrong stands out.
It was really important for me to have comedic scenes because that's the basis of empathy for the characters. You need to have a balance of the humor, the drama and the dark horror moments. In the waxing scene specifically, I wanted to show the absurdity of the fact we wax. When Alexa says, "Beauty is pain", it's a way for us to face that absurdity—so I filmed it really close up, so it was almost painful to watch.
Can we talk about the party scenes? Usually party scenes are really shit in films, but you created a scene of this kind of animalistic, carnival atmosphere. How did you achieve that?
The key was in the movement and filming it in one shot. It had to be packed, and you had to see the sweat. I thought it was really important to see sweat, bodies, people kissing. The atmosphere we wanted to convey was a bit like an orgy. Technically, it was very difficult. We had 300 extras and maybe 50 technicians. Everyone had something to do—you kiss this person, you do a shot—and it was great, because everyone was so focused. The extras were so good, at one point it felt like a real party. We were so happy to be there, I danced with them at one point! It was really cool.
I really enjoyed the relationship between Justine and her college roommate Adrien. Adrien's gay and it feels like his experience of homophobia makes him the only really humane person in the film—the only person with heart. Was it your intention for him to be the emotional center of the film?
I love Adrien, he was the easiest character for me to write. He's definitely the emotional center of the film, because he says the things no-one else can say. And he makes Justine feel the things she doesn't want to feel. I really wanted Adrien to be an extremely good guy, and for their relationship to be unique.
There's a sense of anarchy that's really conveyed throughout the film—the school itself has no almost no adults, and it's such a brutal, stark building. It reminded me of Lord of the Flies.
I thought a lot about Lord of the Flies when I was writing it. There is a structure there, but it comes from the older students. They're stupid and blind and manipulative. Justine is becoming an adult, and she needs to find her path. And that involves acknowledging her dark side in order to make real moral choices in the end. You have to acknowledge your dark side in order to see yourself as a moral person.
Raw is out in the UK on April 7.