At the young age of 34, Julia Ducournau is a French film director and screenwriter whose feature horror debut, Raw, has successfully catapulted her in the genre realm of cinema. Ducournau attended La Fémis, a Paris based film and television school, where she studied screenwriting and began working on short films. Her short, Junior, premiered in 2011, winning the Petit Rail d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. The project connected Ducournau to young actress, Garance Marillier, who appeared in her second project, Mange (2012). She then went on to take the lead role in Raw, this year’s most buzzed about film on the festival circuit.
Ducournau’s obsession with the human body, which began with Junior—a film that follows a tomboyish girl undergoing her own bizarre transformation—comes full circle with Raw, a genre-bending, body-horror, tour-de-force that follows sixteen year old vegetarian, Justine, as she begins veterinary school. Once there, she is subjected to brutal and gross hazing rituals that involve eating raw rabbit liver and pouring buckets of pig’s blood on the unfortunate newbies (a cheeky nod to horror classic Carrie). This first taste of blood sends lifelong vegetarian, Justine, into a cannibalistic frenzy that awakens her appetite for flesh, as well as her own sexuality. Justine’s older and “cooler” sister, Alexia (played by Ella Rumpf), suffers from the same affliction and in her own way, she tries to help Justine manage her hunger. The sisters’ relationship feels raw (no pun intended) and organic, as Ducournau wanted to make the feature much more than just a gory horror film known for having made audience members pass out during its screening at TIFF 2016.
The movie is, above all else, a coming of age story told through physical metamorphosis. It’s about finding humanity and making a moral choice: Justine is confronted with the animality of her desires and for the first time in her life, she has to consciously choose who she wants to be (by leaving her childhood skin behind and embracing her new body and cravings). Alexia, on the other hand, represents that primal need that remains in Justine’s psyche, which is why Alexia doesn’t quite transition past her primitiveness. Their trajectory resembles an X, as Justine slowly, but surely, ascends towards humanity, consciousness, and morality. On the other hand, her older sister decides to follow her basic instincts and descends towards animalism, thus becoming Justine’s nemesis. Ducournau’s innate ability to seamlessly mix dark comedy, tragedy, teen angst, and body horror, into one cohesive story (an attribute she links to her admiration of South Korean thrillers) is what makes Justine such a real and likable character. Even when we are shown her flaws and moments of narcissism, we still see that she is a human being with complex emotions and authentic feelings. She’s not just another soulless monster/cannibal that we’ve grown so accustomed to seeing in the horror genre.
In Raw, cannibalism not only stands for sex, violence, and rebellion against the establishment, but it also stands for love and the excess of love. The film is full of symbolism (setting it in a vet school was the perfect and most logical choice), beautiful imagery, and touching moments that showcase the horror of post-adolescent development. It’s a story about the struggles of fitting in socially, sibling rivalry, coming to terms with your own sexuality and the complexity of human nature. And to think: all of this came about when Ducournau (above) first asked herself, “Why are we quick to dismiss some people from humanity when they are human?” Justine’s (and the audience’s) curiosity and repulsion for what is happening to her and her body comes from the director’s life and fixation with body horror; her dermatologist father and gynecologist mother not only encouraged an appreciation of diverse cinema, but also gave her a unique perspective on life and death. Ducournau’s minimalist approach to filming Raw is evident in the film’s surreal atmosphere and dark aura (brilliantly captured by cinematographer Ruben Impens). The use of discomforting wide shots of imposing college buildings reminds us of Dario Argento’s cult classic Suspiria, also set in a school with young and troubled women.
Raw was filmed in 37 days and won the FIPRESCI Critic’s Prize at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, where it made its world premiere without any fainting incidents. The movie also won the Sutherland Award for Best First Feature at the London Film Festival and was shown at the Midnight Madness screenings at TIFF, causing such intense visceral audience reactions that hadn’t been seen since Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist and Eli Roth’s The Green Inferno. Raw comes in succession to other genre films—The Witch, It Follows, The Babadook, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night—that are slowly, but surely redefining a new wave of arthouse horror flicks. These films are deeply inspired by the likes of David Cronenberg and David Lynch and are often, helmed by women. Ducournau aptly notes that horror as a genre is being embraced in a broader way and the need for more complex and realistic female leads is finally being heard and put into action.
With the recurrence of women choosing the topic of cannibalism, the idea of the female desire to tear into the skin is incredibly intriguing, as Ducournau comments, “When someone looks at you from the outside, they’re going to look at your skin. It’s your envelope. I do think that somehow, symbolically, women want to get rid of that skin that has been sexualized, glamorized, and seen as something that is completely not relatable for women. They want to tear up that skin to be completely raw.” This is why Raw’s gross, enduring, painful and sexual aspects of the body are filmed and shown in a way that strives for universality – to take the female body outside its niche and have male audience members fully identify and understand a female protagonist in a way that hasn’t been done before. That’s what ultimately, makes Raw such a compelling and unsettling film: it defies expectations at every turn by juxtaposing moments of graphic violence with moments of physical intimacy. It’s less interested in shocking us than in taking an unwavering look at the human body and its urges. The film is a social commentary on womanhood and mankind, through the lens of cannibalism.
Ducournau has never been shy about her distaste for the phrase “female filmmaker” as the two, in her opinion, go hand in hand as naturally as the phrase “male director” and shouldn’t be questioned for a moment. After a year of being asked about her identity as a female director and screenwriter and the disturbing way that it is, at times, treated as nothing more than the latest Hollywood fad, Ducournau’s advice for women filmmakers is, “Never let yourself be treated as a trend, because you are here to last.”