The French cannibal horror-drama Raw was a favorite of The A.V. Club’s at Fantastic Fest last fall, and this week the film opens in U.S. theaters courtesy of distributor Focus World. The film stars Garance Marillier in her feature-film debut as Justine, a lifelong vegetarian and first-year veterinary student who is overcome by cannibalistic fervor after eating raw meat for the first time. Ella Rumpf co-stars as Justine’s rebellious older sister Alexia, who suffers from the same affliction and tries, in her own bloodthirsty way, to help Justine manage their shared curse.
The film is loaded with symbolism and grotesquely beautiful imagery, directed with an assured hand by 33-year-old Julia Ducournau. We spoke with Ducournau over the phone on International Women’s Day, and delved deep into both the poetic themes and nitty-gritty details of the film, and her process making it.
The A.V. Club: Obviously, the film has horror-movie elements, but it’s also a coming-of-age tale. How are those two connected, in your mind?
Julia Ducournau: It’s funny, because for me the movie is not a horror movie.
AVC: Why not?
JD: Because I didn’t write it to scare people. As a big horror buff, when I go to see a horror movie I want to be super scared. I want to jump off my seat and I want to yell in the theater. And that’s really not what I did here, I didn’t do jump scares or any of the traditional horror movie grammar. For me, the movie is really a crossover between comedy, drama, and body horror. And body horror itself is a subgenre of horror that’s not really scary, and would barely qualify as horror. For me, it’s way more humane, and more about raising questions that are disturbing. It’s not meant to make you jump in your seat, it’s meat to make you squirm in your seat, which is a very different sensation, you know?
For me, the link with the teen movie or the coming-of-age story is that I am very, very interested in bodies. I really like to film them, and I like to use the bodies of my characters in order to talk about their psyche. For example, if one [character] feels like a monster, I’m going to make them a monster. If another is broken inside, I’m going to show the scars on their skin. And what I love about body-horror grammar is that if you turn off the sound on your TV and you watch the movie, not only do you [still] understand the plot, you also understand what’s happening inside that character and how they’re feeling, because it’s portrayed on their skin and on their body. It’s super cinematographic, and it’s all about the image. And to find the right image to portray a feeling is what I like.
The thing with coming-of-age stories—and this is really only my interpretation—is that they are all about physical transformation. Most of the time, they’re about post-adolescence, becoming an adult and leaving your childhood skin behind. But for me, it can also be about any stage of your life where you’re going to be at a turning point that implies physical transformation. For example a first pregnancy, or a guy losing his hair for the first time and that’s a huge trauma for him, or any moment when your body morphs and you question the integrity of your identity. “Am I the same person as I was before?” And this is how I talk about it, because when you become a young adult, and when you discover your body in a different way because you discover sexuality, it’s different in [terms of] needs and compulsions, but also in the way people look at you. It all revolves around the body.
AVC: So you’re heightening the trauma of bodily transformation in the film?
JD: I am magnifying it for sure, but for me it’s not only about that. On the first degree of narration, of course, [the film] is about becoming an adult. But more generally speaking, I wanted to make a movie about what it is to become human. [The protagonist, Justine] for the first time in her life, she’s going to be confronted with a moral choice. That is, “I could kill, but I won’t—or will I?” It’s her choice. It’s not her parents’ choice, and it’s not society’s choice, it’s not because the hazers [at her university] told her to think like that. She’s confronted with the animality in her emotions, and in her impulses, and for the first time she asks herself, “Okay, what kind of person do I want to be? Do I want to be a person that kills”—because she needs to kill—“or do I want to be someone who builds up a moral canvas, and who doesn’t yield to their animalistic nature?”
AVC: Throughout the film, you see these juxtapositions of human and animal. For example, there’s the image of a horse running and its muscles rippling, and then later Justine is watching her roommate play soccer, and they seem to parallel each other.
JD: That’s why I chose to shoot in a vet school, to be able to represent the dilemma or the fight there is inside of [Justine], between her animality and her desire for humanity. She does not want to be an animal. She’s really fighting it. And it was very important for me to portray this inner fight on the image—it’s all about the image, you know? That way, we understand [her struggle], and we don’t have to go through painful dialogue like, “Oh, I think I might go over the edge.” No one wants to hear that. [Laughs.] So yeah, that’s why I did that.
AVC: The bond between Justine and her sister Alexia, who attends the same school, is another interesting theme. Could you talk a bit about how that plays into the film?
JD: To link it into the previous answer I gave you, [Alexia] represents Justine’s dark shadow, and what she could be. It’s not what she wants to be, but it’s a dark shadow over her head all the time. Her sister tells her, “You’re not going to last long like this, you’ve got to eat at some point.” When you hear that, it sounds super logical, but in an animalistic, primal sort of system. You need to eat, you eat. You kill and you eat. And that’s why her sister doesn’t make the transition to humanity. She stayed with her primal needs. She represents a part of the psyche that is living inside of [Justine].
But however, I really did not like [the idea of] a Manichean antagonist. I love it when you have a story with two people at the center, one allegedly [evil] and one allegedly [good], and these two people have more in common than they think they do. For example, I’m thinking a lot of the time about Michael Mann’s Heat. [Al] Pacino and [Robert] De Niro in that movie are really the same, and you think, “Oh my god, they could be friends, they understand each other so well.” So the end, it just breaks your heart.
So I wanted these two sisters to be truly full of love for each other. This is what makes this story, for me, a modern tragedy. I really thought a lot about Greek myths and Greek tragedies, and the Bible, and I realized that the portrayals of sisterhood and brotherhood in the Bible—in these founding texts of Western culture—are always super gory and hardcore. It’s all people eating each other up, or killing each other because there’s too much love and one of them can’t bear it so the other has to disappear, you know? Cain and Abel and all that. They’re too close, so there’s jealousy in front of the father figure and all that. So that’s why I decided to make them sisters, because I thought it was incredibly cinematic.
The cannibalism—of course it stands for sex, it stands for violence, it stands for rebelling against the establishment, but I also wanted it to stand for love, and an excess of love. That was very important to me to think about. I was thinking about a body cell that’s in mitosis, and it’s dividing, and when a cell divides there’s some loss that happens, and that means that there is pain. When there is loss, there’s something being torn up a little bit, and there is pain on both sides. And the cells that are the result from this division, they look alike, but they are incredibly different because they are no longer in fusion. They are no longer the same cell. That’s an image I was holding in my heart when I was writing [the sisters].
AVC: You said earlier that you see the film as part comedy; I think that’s an aspect that doesn’t get discussed enough compared to some of the more shocking elements, because there are some parts that are really funny. What was your approach to adding comedy to the film?
JD: For me, comedy is essential, especially when you do genre, and especially when you tell a really dark story. I really could not relate to a story in which I can’t [purge] some moments with laughter, or in which I could not be lured by laughter toward the most dramatic or surprising scenes. For example, if you put a comedic scene before a genre scene, as an audience you’re going to feel at ease. You’re going to be like, “Okay, I can breathe a bit, because it’s funny.” Then you can create your element of surprise afterwards with the genre erupting. And on the other hand, of course, you can put laughter after so you can relax a little and feel better about the scene you just saw.
But more than anything, I really believe that, personally, as an audience member, I really relate to a character that makes me laugh, if I laugh with the character instead of at the character. If you’re laughing with a character at the beginning of a movie, he or she can do pretty much whatever they want in the movie and I will stand by them. It creates a real bond and connection with the audience, and it’s really important to remind [people] of this connection. It’s not an intellectual [connection]. Laughter is a physical reaction, of complicity, of bonding, and I really like that.
AVC: Your lead actress, Garance, goes through an incredible transformation in the film. How did you work with her to achieve that?
JD: Well, Garance’s main fear when we started shooting was that we weren’t shooting in chronological order, because we didn’t have $100 million to make the movie. And so she knew that she’s going to have to go from one identity to another over the course of one day, every day. She’s going to have to go from a child to a sexual predator. One moment she should be super mature, and the next super naïve, you know. And all of this kind of scared her, and she came and told me that. And I told her to let go of all this, because we don’t care about the psychology at this level [of the process].
For me, the psychology of the character is something we have worked out before [shooting]. I spend a lot of time talking about the script and about the characters with my actors before we shoot, so they can find what they like and what they don’t like [about their character], how they’re the same and how they are different, how they should move and how they should talk compared to their speech and their movements in real life. I really make them, and I’m sorry for the pun, but digest the characters before shooting.
And once we’re on set I don’t talk about the psychology of the characters anymore. I’m there to direct my actor’s bodies [at that point]. And that’s why I told Garance, “You know your character, you know by heart her journey, what she goes through, how she feels, where she comes from, where she’s going. You know it. And now I’m with you. And we’re going to talk about your body and work with that.” I’m super present on set, and I really concentrate on the bodies and on the tone. I think about the choreography and the music a lot. You keep it at this basic level, and if the work has been done on the character before, this is all you have to do on set.
The only time I get into some kind of psychologization of the situation is when we have to use prosthetics, like in the scene with the finger. Because when you use prosthetics, you really feel like you belong to a different family of cinema. You really have to remind your actor or actress that this is not a piece of candy, it’s a finger. It sounds obvious, but the first time Garance saw the finger she really thought it was candy. And it’s hard to project yourself in the prosthetic, so she had trouble making it a partner in the acting. So I had to remind her of what Justine was going to do with this finger; I told her, “She’s an A grade student. She’s very curious, and she loves medicine obviously, because she’s a vet student.” And I told her, “Most people, including you and me, would put this finger in a bowl and wait for the ambulance to arrive, but Justine isn’t like that. She’s going to think that this is her only opportunity to see what’s inside a human finger.”
AVC: May I ask what the prosthetic was made of? Spun sugar?
JD: It’s like gummy bears that are melted a little bit. Like that. Then it’s molded. And the raw chicken breasts, too. Everything that they eat [in the film] is candy.
AVC: You talked about how you do a lot of preparation before shooting—I was really struck by the imagery in this film, and was wondering if, in your process, image precedes story, or how that works for you.
JD: For me, it all goes together. My scripts are very precise, and when I write a scene, I know exactly what the shots should be. I see them all in my head already. Sometimes I even start cutting scenes in the script; when I’m writing a scene I know I’m going to keep, I start cutting it mentally so I have it in my head. When I imagine a scene I imagine everything about it—the light, the costumes, where I am going to put my camera, and it’s already precise. My editor always tells me that my scripts are already edited, almost. I couldn’t go on set without knowing what [each shot] has to look like. Some people work like that and I totally respect that, but for me I actually have nightmares about seeing myself on set and not knowing where to put the camera. It really freaks me out. So it’s there when I am writing.
Raw is now playing in select markets around the U.S., with an expansion planned for next week. You can see if and where it is playing near you on the film’s website.