Writer and director Julia Ducournau’s latest film, Raw, has largely been reported on due to members of an audience requiring medical attention having fainted at a Toronto Film Festival screening, and a Los Angeles theatre subsequently providing ‘barf bags’ at a screening. But to focus on these incidents would be unfair to the film’s artistry, it’s the film’s deeper themes and moral dilemmas that generate the most rousing reactions.
Ducournau is not keen on placing her debut feature into pre-determined boxes. Blending tropes from across genres (body horror, thriller, comedy), the French filmmaker wanted Raw to transcend traditional cinematic labels and is quick to correct anyone who calls it a film about meat eating, or sexuality. Her visceral take on cannibalism comes wrapped in black comedic wit, coming-of-age fables and, of course, scenes of a graphic nature (caveat: we advise meat-free cinema snacks).
Asking audiences whether they can identify, and even sympathise, with a character with a taste for inhumane practices, the plot revolves around sixteen-year-old veterinary college fresher Justine (Garance Marillier) and her sudden desire for human flesh, after being forced into eating a rabbit kidney as part of a forceful hazing week ritual.
Despite the reports of weak stomachs, the film is not a gratuitous gore-fest, nor ‘torture porn.’ Raw has a much deeper message – one of family relationships and, more importantly, morality.
Hannah Holway: You’ve said that you don’t consider Raw to be a horror film and I was surprised with how funny it was – were the comedic elements a conscious decision from the start?
Julia Ducournau: It was very conscious, for the sole reason that when I’m in the audience, I really need laughter to identify with a character, or with a story in general. For me, laughter is a strong bond that you build up with a movie. I do believe that if a character makes you laugh at the beginning of a film, then you’re pretty much going to have empathy for him or her until the end, no matter what they do. For example, in the cafeteria scene where they’re talking about monkeys and rape, Adrien is super funny. It’s very important that we like Adrien in this scene, as he is going to be our eyes on Justine for the rest of the film. We have to identify with him in order to identify with her.
Hannah: Cannibalism isn’t something that’s often seen on screens, and you’ve previously talked about wanting to give it a more ‘human’ face…
Julia: The reason why I decided to take on this subject… You said about giving them a human face, but I don’t need to do that because they already have a human face. That’s the whole point. If I were a cannibal and we’re looking at each other now, you wouldn’t know it physically, I don’t have tentacles or anything like that. And that’s the thing that’s interesting about cannibalism: it’s the only taboo which is treated like it doesn’t exist. In movies they are always treated like monsters, and it’s really one world against another, which is weird because they do exist, and whether we like it or not, if we look at each other we’re the same. So it’s really a question of, ‘Why do we repress this’, you know? That’s why I decided to confront this very human ‘monster’, and also this other form of monstrosity, that is the hazing. This moral dilemma is what I wanted to tackle. Where is the humanity in this movie?
“If I were a cannibal and we’re looking at each other now, you wouldn’t know it physically, I don’t have tentacles or anything like that. And that’s the thing that’s interesting about cannibalism: it’s the only taboo which is treated like it doesn’t exist.”
Hannah: The hazing rituals are very extreme, was this based on real experiences?
Julia: Not my experiences. I think it exists in every country, but in France it has been illegal since 1998, although you still hear stories about a hazing that went wrong. So I was aware of this, and I looked at a lot of Youtube videos of hazing from different schools around the world. But in the end I made my own thing, because I’m not here to reproduce reality, otherwise I would’ve made a documentary about hazing (which would be very interesting, by the way). I also thought a lot about Lord of the Flies, which is about recreating a form of society outside of society, and this is kind of like the principle of any anticipation movie. There’s always an experiment or a punishment, and it’s about applying rules. This interests me a lot because this is where you can find the most extreme behaviours, which are supposed to be ‘framed’, but are actually the monstrous ones.
Hannah: It’s really interesting to see a body horror film where the innocent, virginal teenage girl isn’t immediately killed off or victimised. Is this subversion of gender roles something which you place at the forefront of your films?
Julia: Yes, but I wouldn’t put it like that. For me, it was very natural that my main character would be female, which is mostly to do with the way I wanted to film bodies. But I never thought “Oh, so it’s going to be a counterpoint to the ‘final girl’ thing”, I never thought that once. For me, it was just about understanding this girl’s journey, and to question how I’m going to portray her sexuality, and how I will manage to make everyone in the room identify with this girl who is also a cannibal. I think, unfortunately, it’s harder to achieve universal identification with a female character than with a male character. Which is unfair. I tried to find an entry point in the way that I would film her experiences so that they would be relatable to everybody, and the way that I did that was through the triviality of her body. And I think that through the grossness of the body, the fluid and the hair and the smell and everything, it talks to an intimacy that belongs to all of us, that you don’t usually show to other people. It goes through your heart somehow, and it’s beyond genders, beyond origins and beyond classes. It’s the relationship we all have with our own bodies.
Hannah: The symbolism and images in the film can be interpreted lots of different ways, how much is Justine’s cannibalism a metaphor for her ‘sexual awakening’ and discovering of her own sexuality?
Julia: It’s funny because everyone asks me this, but it’s really a preconceived idea. There is cannibalism in the movie, and there is sex in the movie, and in your head, you guys put these two together. The only real act of cannibalism that she goes through is with her sister, and that is not sexual at all. People tend to forget that – I never ever wrote the story of women eating men. I don’t have anything to say about that story. For me it’s way deeper than this, it’s really about this quest for identity, and love. And of course, cannibalism unleashes sexuality, but sexuality does not unleash cannibalism. Her craving for meat is what frees her. The first time she commits an act of cannibalism, it’s a ‘fuck you’ to her sister, but also to everyone that has been hazing her. It’s a punk rebellion, you know? Like, “You’re fucking with me so I’m going to fuck with you.” This gesture of freedom somehow makes her able to be more in touch with her feelings and desires, and for the first time she is able to accept these desires. And that’s where the sexuality comes from. It frees that, but they’re not synonyms.
Hannah: The fact that the film is set in a veterinary school means that the cannibalism scenes are juxtaposed with scenes of animals being operated on. How do you feel that our reaction to eating humans or animals shouldn’t be that different?
Julia: I think that we as humans are responsible towards animals, to treat them well and protect them. That’s all I can tell you.
Raw is in cinemas tomorrow, 7th April.