how a movie about cannibalism became the coming of age film of the year
With ‘Raw’, director Julia Ducournau shows what eating human flesh can teach us about growing up and discovering our humanity.
By now you've probably heard about Raw, Julia Ducournau's debut feature film about a young French cannibal. As soon as the first audience member fainted in a Toronto screening the movie was inducted into cinema lore. Hype and speculation swirled and horror fans salivated over the promise of a deplorable new benchmark in modern horror. Each new image of doe-eyed lead Garance Marillier's delicate, blood smeared face whetted appetites and turned stomachs.
But underneath the flesh eating — which yes, is very unsettling — is a singularly original interpretation of the coming of age narrative. While most films in the genre catch on familiar themes like sexuality and independence, Ducournau takes these ideas, and spins them around a larger question: what is it to be human?
We watch central character Justine transform from a militant vegetarian to an emotionally conflicted teenage cannibal after being baptised by a forced taste of meat during a uni hazing ritual. Between bites she negotiates her own concept of control and battles the internal pull between human and beast. We called up Julia to talk about how she inverted some of the most familiar horror tropes to create one of the year's most anticipated examinations of identity, family, sex and vegetarian values.
This film is about a lot of stuff — growing up, sex, violence, sisters — why use cannibalism as the lens to examine these themes?
Well, the first thing is you're right when you said it tackles all of these things. But for me the centre question in my movie is, what is it to be human? Like, how do you become a human being? When do you tackle your first choice in your life? I think that in adolescence, teenagers are all confronted with building their own moral compass.
That being said, when I started focusing on cannibalism with my producer I told him, "you know it's interesting, in most cannibal movies the cannibals are portrayed as 'they'". It's like they're creatures from outer space or zombies. Which is strange because cannibals are real, they always have been and they always will be. You can't portray them as not being part of the human race, they are part of humanity. I wondered, why do we look at them from the outside? Why do we repress this part of humanity? Why do we not want to explore that part of humanity?
Those are huge themes for anyone to unpack, let alone tangle with in under two hours. How did you approach them?
When tackling the question of what it is to be human, I wanted to understand what happens when someone goes further than where we would all have stopped. What does that make of them? Can you say she's not human at the end of the movie? Can you say she had tentacles protruding from her ears? No, she's still human. She has done this, but at the end of the movie she is even more human because she has tackled, for the first time, her own moral choices, which are: I could kill but I won't.
Your comment about cannibalism being as old as humanity is interesting. Watching this film there are obviously references to zombie movies, but there are also echoes of biblical tales and and ancient Greek mythology — were there stories or folklore you drew on?
I'm very interested in the work of Claude Lévi-Strauss, a very famous French anthropologist and geographer who worked a lot around cannibalism. He went around the world to places there were still tribes participating in ritual cannibalism and asked why we call this monstrous when some of our behaviours to this tribe would be considered monstrous. For example, putting people in jail.
I was very interested in the anthropological aspect of cannibalism; there is not one cannibalism, each case of cannibalism represents a different moral situation. A serial killer that eats his victims is not the same of the rugby team who crashed in the Andes and had to eat the bodies of their team mates, even if the act is the same.
That introduces the idea of degrees of depravity, something the film tracks. For example in the beginning eating animal flesh is unthinkable for Justine, but by the end she's navigating eating people.
She hasn't made peace with it [eating people], she's fighting it. That's why she's different from her sister, she's human and her sister is an animal. Her sister responds to primal needs and doesn't question them. She's trying to find a way to exist inside humanity despite what her nature dictates to her.
That theme of control is constant, and is one of the reasons a lot of the writing around the movie has been pulling back and forward over whether it's a horror movie or a coming of age story. How do you classify it?
For me it's a coming of age story. It's been qualified a lot as a horror movie, but I don't think it is. I'm a big horror fan, and when I watch a horror movie I'm seeking to be frightened and jump off my seat. But that's not why I made this movie, I did try and disturb my audience and make them think and ask why they felt the way they did. But for me that's a very different gesture than a horror movie.
We're heard a lot about people fainting in screenings, walking out, becoming physically ill — were you surprised by the physical reactions people had?
I did try and create a body reaction in my audience. First I want to speak to the bodies of my audience, then to their minds. When you react physically to an image it makes you question yourself and ask why you felt like that.
It's true that two people fainted in Toronto, but there has been a very big snowball effect that we've seen on the internet which I was pretty powerless against. I don't think it [the coverage] did justice for what I tried to do, which was find a balance between what I have to show and what I don't have to show in order to keep the empathy of the audience to my character. When you talk about humanity, you really try and have the strongest empathy.
It might not be as gross as people make out, but there are specific scenes or images that stay with you. As a filmmaker, working during a period where movies like Human Centipede and Hostel are mainstream hits, how do you go about creating an image that will really impact the viewer?
That's an interesting question. The first thing again is that there's empathy for the character. The more we're with her, the more we're on her level, the more we are going to be as vulnerable as her. That's why you react so strongly when she pukes her hair, we're at her level, we're living with her and are scared as her body becomes autonomous — because we know our bodies can become autonomous.
Secondly it's about balance in what I show and don't show. If I showed her with her head buried in dead bodies, eating brains, from the beginning no one would have felt anything for her. They would have been desensitised and there would be no effect. That's why I hate gratuitous violence, it doesn't make me feel anything because you get used to it and it doesn't say anything. You're like, okay seen it, what's next?
Raw will be released across Australia and New Zealand on Thursday 20 April, 2017.
Text Wendy Syfret