The writer-director sat down for the latest entry in our Next Wave series.
For a movie often described as a “coming-of-age cannibalism film,” Raw sure has a lot more to say about the first year of college than what it’s like to eat another human being. The first feature film by French filmmaker Julia Ducournau and her second collaboration with actress Garance Marillier ‐ the two had previously collaborated on Ducournau’s first short film and a television movie ‐ Raw is a twisting and genre-bending tale of what happens when young vegetarian Justine (Marillier) follows her older sister (Ella Rumpf) to veterinary school and awakens a craving for human flesh. Sure, people get eaten, but Raw spends far more time dealing with Justine’s attempts to step out of her sister’s shadow and take ownership of her newfound sexuality. College is tough for anyone, cannibal or not.
For Ducournau, Raw isn’t just her first feature film: it’s also the culmination of a years-long collaboration with Marillier, an actress with whom she’s formed a special bond. “This relationship is unique,” Ducournau explains during a phone interview, “because it started six or seven years ago.” Since working together on Ducournau’s 2011 short film Junior, the director and her young star have worked to develop a dynamic based on mutual trust and a willingness to experiment. That explains the depth of Marillier’s performance, which manages to keep Justine as an earnest and likable character even after we watch her eat the finger of her unconscious companion. Ducournau credits Marillier as being an actress who, even as an amateur, was never “off-tune,” and Raw shows her uncanny ability to walk a fine line with her audience.
That balance is important, because Raw is not a film that belongs to any one genre of film. At times deeply funny or uncomfortably violent, Raw succeeds by treating each of its various tones as equally important to the film’s success. For Ducournau, this mixture of black comedy, teenage angst, and body horror is influenced by a very specific film culture: the South Korean thriller. “When you see Koreans movies nowadays, you don’t even think it’s a crossover,” Ducournau explains. “You think it’s a unified language that just incorporated different emotions.” What she aims for, then, is not simply a horror movie with coming-of-age elements or a teenage film with a dollop of body horror; for Ducournau, the process of weaving together disparate genres to form a unified whole was a pressing concern during the writing process. “When I was writing the movie, balancing the genres together was something that was very, very important to me,” Ducournau says. “Because it is important to me that these genres co-exist in a perfectly coherent way.”
If anything, Ducournau takes issue with the arbitrary way in which the body horror subgenre is defined. “For me, body horror [films are] not actual horror movies,” she explains, “because I was never scared when watching a body horror movie.” Instead, Ducournau finds body horror to be a source of both humor and comfort in its no-nonsense treatment of the human form. “We can laugh about ourselves, we can laugh about these moments where we are ugly and disgusting,” she says, but we can also see these films as “a promise of equality, because in the end we are all like this in our intimacy.” In Raw, the moments of graphic violence stand side-by-side with other moments of physical intimacy. Ducournau’s characters puke and urinate onscreen, attend to painful rashes, and wax their pubic hair, all with the same steady gaze as the film’s depictions of cannibalism. The closer we look at the characters in the film, the more we see them as only the sum of the biological functions that drive them.
And what about those cannibalism scenes? One challenge Ducournau has faced with Raw is managing expectations for her film after Raw’s now-legendary public screening at the Toronto International Film Festival. At the time, outlets such as Vulture noted that several audience members had felt dizzy during the film’s more graphic cannibal sequences, leading one person to pass out and paramedics to be called to the theater. This is despite the fact that the violence in Raw is nowhere near exploitative. The film’s cannibalism sequences ‐ while certainly graphic ‐ are less interested in shock value than in taking an unflinching look at the human body and the urges that drive it.
When asked if she’s had to work to walk back some of the more lurid headlines regarding her film, Ducournau lets out a sigh. “Every single journalist I’ve met or audience that I’ve done Q&As with, everyone asks me this.” While she knows that there’s no point in fighting a story that has gone viral, she does note that sometimes the conversation around Raw seems to be discussing some other film entirely. “I still feel that some people don’t talk about my movie when they talk about, ‘the goriest experience you will ever have in your life,’ you know?” Ducournau admits. “That’s not my movie.” As with any hybrid horror film, a bloody reputation could unfairly ostracize Raw’s potential art house audience while disappointing the gorehounds only looking for splatter. Knowing what you’re getting ‐ and what you’re not getting ‐ can play a big part on how you approach the movie.
But if Ducournau is exasperated by questions about Raw’s Toronto International Film Festival screening, she’s completely baffled by those that look to emphasize her gender in any discussion of Raw. Ducournau has never been shy about her distaste for the phrase ‘female filmmaker,’ even going so far as to politely decline to name her own favorite female directors in an interview with Women and Hollywood. “I’m a filmmaker and I’m female,” Ducournau says matter-of-factly. “For me, all this is incredibly natural and I don’t question it for one moment.” Ducournau seems honestly puzzled by journalists’ preoccupation with gender, noting that she doesn’t sit down to work on a screenplay with a woman’s perspective in mind. “I don’t know what to say. I’m a woman and I make movies. That’s the end of it. And when I write a movie, I’m not constantly telling myself that I’m female. I just write my movie.”
That being said, Ducournau does have one piece of advice for female filmmakers interested in keeping the conversation focused on their work instead of their gender. After a year of being asked questions about her identity as a female filmmaker, Ducournau was most disturbed by the way some people treated this as nothing more than the latest Hollywood phase. “This is really scary for me, to consider that gender can be a trend, like it’s going to pass, you know?” As a result, she advises young filmmakers not to allow their individual talent be swept up in a narrative that favors impermanence. “Never let yourself be treated as a trend,” Ducournau states emphatically. “Because you are here to last.”